Preparing for New Beginnings: Growth, Transition, and Community at GUS

Over the last week, we sent 80 applications to 23 secondary schools. This is an exciting time for our 8th graders. Every day, the fact that they are graduating soon becomes a little more real. With Arts Night—one of our most fitting rites of passage—happening next week, I am actually watching our “seniors” cracking their shells and preparing to spread their wings. I love stepping through the secondary school admissions process with them, hearing their thoughts, helping them clarify their desires, recognizing how much they’ve grown since 6th grade. Even the process of applying to schools has helped them learn a little bit more about themselves and who they want to be. One fact is powerfully clear, the child who entered the upper school in sixth grade is now a young adult, ready for just about anything. Our students will be absolutely prepared for the challenges they will face as they head into high school and beyond.

I asked our current 8th graders what they hadn’t expected to appreciate most about upper school and they responded: independence, the ability to move from class to class and the responsibility that entails, and—I was gratified to hear—the community. Through sports, clubs, x-blocks, and advisory lunches, our students mix with and befriend students in all the grades. Our intentional work to build community helps ease the discomfort middle school can bring and allows our 8th graders to lead by example in many areas. I know our children benefit from going to a school like GUS that doesn’t, as many public and private schools do, combine middle and high school. Our 8th graders get to experience being the oldest. There is pride and a resulting confidence that comes from being the “seniors,” and that experience has powerful academic and social-emotional consequences. Our students definitely leave GUS with maturity and poise, traits that develop naturally in a program that fosters independence and individuality through rich experiences in a close-knit community that many of them have belonged to since the lower school.

They were not always ready to head out into the world! Middle school is a crazy time of tremendous growth. Height might be the most noticeable change, but it is the changes happening inside that are the most profound. In upper school, our students try new things, think deeply, and start to figure out who they are. The 7th grade “Where I Am From” poems chart some of those changes. Some students come from pets, games, and ice cream, but they also write about strong connections to place and family, about a growing sense of self and the need to belong. Clearly, these students are straddling childhood and young adulthood. Their young voices will continue to evolve into the fine speakers at Evening with the Graduates, an event that encapsulates not only the growth and change of the previous three years, but their entire experience at GUS.  The “lifers,” especially, reflect the amazing opportunity of learning and growing in the most comfortable and safe of places. They will no doubt find it hard to leave the only school they have known, but the strong foundation they built, in a place where they were known, cared for, and challenged, will lift them to even higher heights.

This is also the time of year when the 6th grade faculty and I meet with 5th graders to describe what they can look forward to in upper school. It’s a funny experience for me to be finishing the final process of school choices with my departing students and starting the process of getting to know my new students at the same time. I will admit that it takes a bit of the sting out of goodbyes to focus on the rising 5th graders. Still, I can’t help but wonder at how quickly the three years fly by. I remember vividly conversations I had with current 8th graders when they were in 5th grade and I visited their classroom with my customary gift of candy. We talked about Winaukee (always a favorite) and sports. They were interested in clubs, teachers, and trips. They were scared of homework and grades. When they visited the upper school building, they loved their lockers. Every group is different, but the questions, concerns, and excitement are the same. I often tell parents of rising 5th graders that, while the upper school offers many new challenges and opportunities, the qualities they chose GUS for in the first place—the involved community, our commitment to excellence, and devoted teachers (to name just a few)—carry forward with equal conviction to the upper school. 

As we reviewed our curriculum this year, I was struck by the consistency with which the lower and upper schools deliver on our mission grade by grade. I am inspired by our collective commitment to educating the whole child. We might feel very different at times, but we are truly one school. Pairing upper and lower school partners and the weekly whole-school assembly are the formal ways we stay connected, but many smaller moments of connection happen all the time. It might be an upper school teacher sharing a common interest with lower schoolers or upper and lower school students coming together to learn. Just last week, the second graders shared their self-designed guided meditations (which were wonderful!) with the seventh graders. Opportunities to work together, play together, share their lives and learning together create a strong K–8 community in which the whole breadth of students experience their education in meaningful and memorable ways. 

One of my favorite GUS traditions is that our graduation speakers are GUS alums who have just graduated from college. That means they were 8th graders when the current graduating class were kindergartners—a lovely melding of two rites of passage that celebrates the endurance of the GUS family. As the parent of a GUS kindergartner, I know that two of the current 8th graders will be invited to speak at my daughter’s graduation. Just the thought makes my eyes fill up, my breath catch, and my heart skip a beat. I can’t imagine anything more touching and fitting—that each graduation brings together the oldest and youngest students who walked these halls together.

So, as I prepare to say goodbye to a wonderful group of young adults and welcome a new group of students to the upper school, I feel incredibly proud to be at GUS. Our students amaze me every day. They are headed for great things, and it is a privilege to be along for the ride.

Gretchen Forsyth

Director of Upper School

Gretchen Forsyth