Recently we talked with the students at a new school on the South Shore. The Chapman Farm School was founded by Katy Shamitz, a social educator and former guidance counselor whose program, Skills for Living, has grown rapidly over the past few years. Katy was driven to provide a school that could be a safe haven for students who were no longer willing to attend their conventional schools. We had the opportunity to talk with most of the students in some depth. Their experiences were each different — hoping to leave with a theme, we found only individual differences — and painful histories.
One young woman had found the work at her previous school overwhelming, especially the math. “I just couldn’t keep up — the class was moving so fast and the teacher didn’t seem to notice that some of us were falling so far behind. I loved the school and the other students, but the workload was just too difficult.” She confessed she would like to go back but does not think she will be able to do that. “This school is more careful with the students, and the work is suited to each of us.” She reported that she was crying everyday — and finally her parents took pity on her and sent her to Chapman Farm.
Another young woman we talked with reflected that her experience was “overwhelming homework, heavy and difficult academics, and a run down school environment in which the staff and students were all lacking in respect for each other.” Rules were also a problem — not that there were rules, but that they were arbitrary and not well defined. “No short shorts — okay, but what is the right length? No one seemed to know, so teachers decided, and the interpretation differed widely.” She soon enough she was sleeping in a day or two a week, then not attending at all.
At the other end of the spectrum was a young man who said he excelled in the academic skills that his school demanded. “I was always great at the academic side of things — I am working on my programming skills and I love math.” This young man told us that the biggest issue he faced was the relentless teasing and bullying at his previous school. “Every day I was bullied, and nothing was done about it. The school didn’t seem to think that it was important, and the boy who did it was never disciplined.” In fact, he said, the boy who did the bullying was well liked by his peers, so if anything the student was supported by the other kids — and the teachers allowed his behavior to go on for two years, even though it was a private school. “My favorite subjects were math and science, so I loved that aspect of the school, but that one student ruined the entire thing for me.” Another student felt the same way — the academic side was the easier to manage, but the groups of students who teased, who bullied, made the school impossible for him. “Here I have friends, there I was bullied by multiple boys, and I never felt comfortable. I had iffy relationships with my teachers and simply did not find anything to my liking. I love it here!”
I also had the opportunity to talk with a mom whose children had each experienced challenges with staying in school. She found that the issues were primarily in middle school. Each of three of her children hit a point where they were feeling that school was simply “not right.” Once they were of high school age that all changed. They were feeling the lack of a peer group, and were much more interested in attending school. She also felt that each of the student feeling as though they had control of whether or not they attended made an enormous difference. One of her daughters articulated that “I need more time to play!”
Her oldest, a boy, is now a college student. He took primarily AP courses in high school and now finds that his college courses are not sufficiently challenging — so he plans to have a double major with a minor, all in math and sciences. Her children were driven to do well in school once they reached high school, but middle school was extraordinarily difficult for each of them.
If there is a common theme among the students we interviewed, and looking back, among the students we have taught who were not attending school, it is simply this. Middle school is a very painful experience for a lot of students. All of those students, whose bodies are transforming, are encountering each other at the worst possible time. Whether they are academically skilled or not is almost immaterial. For each student it seems that middle school is the greatest challenge they will face in their academic life. The students at Chapman Farm were fortunate to have discovered a school that allows them to mature in safety and harmony.