in the middle

There’s something about middle school that’s tricky. Kids aren’t old enough for high school, but they’re ready to spread their wings farther than elementary school allows. Many parents of fifth graders who will be “clapped out” of their elementary schools in June, already are experiencing this push-pull, as longed-for freedom clashes with the need for guidance and protection. 

Middle school needs to prepare kids for what comes next in high school and beyond, since 93 percent of Mt. Lebanon High School graduates continue with post-secondary education.   

Mt. Lebanon has had two top-ranked middle schools: Thomas Jefferson Middle (JMS) on Moffett Street and Andrew Mellon Middle (MMS) on Castle Shannon Boulevard.  Courtney Horrigan, whose three children went to Jefferson (two are now in college, one in high school), appreciates the education they received in sixth through eighth grades. “I have been impressed with the quality of the teachers, and how much they are genuinely excited by their subject matter and eager to work with kids at what can be a very challenging age,” she says.

Jefferson Middle School social studies teacher Tyler Bluemling addresses his class before passing out a test. Photo: John Schisler

Mt. Lebanon made the change to the middle school model in 1997, when Jefferson and Mellon, former junior high schools that were closed in 1983 and 1986 respectively, were refurbished and reopened. Prior to 1997, seventh- and eighth-graders had been housed in a separate “junior high” on the sixth floor of the high school complex, and sixth-graders were in elementary school.

Today, JMS welcomes students from Lincoln, Hoover and Jefferson elementary schools; MMS receives students from Washington, Foster and Howe. Because Markham is located in between, it is officially assigned to Jefferson but up to 30 students who live the farthest away can attend Mellon. The schools’ facilities, schedules and programs are very similar, except that Mellon hosts the district’s life skills program for children with intellectual disabilities or other challenges (the population isn’t large enough to have a center at both schools).

Sixth graders James Brown, Michael Ferreira and Sutter Smith hang out at Jefferson Middle School’s International Night. Photo: Jacqueline Radin

Middle school children are not like either elementary or high school students—they are unique and require special teaching skills. Mt. Lebanon middle schoolers are fortunate to have many teachers who are committed to their students and love what they do.  In her 27th year of teaching English language arts (ELA) at JMS, Stephanie Ross still gets asked if she wants to “move up” to the high school. She laughs in response—“as if it were a promotion!”—because she’s right where she wants to be. 

Ross graduated from Lebo High in 1984 and has enjoyed teaching in her home district, which served her well. “Teaching in Mt. Lebanon is wonderful,” she says.  “When I began, many of my former teachers were still here, and they were all kind and generous with their time and materials. It did, however, take me some time to call them by their first names—I revered these people!” 

Mt. Lebanon’s middle school students are assigned to academic teams—a different approach than they experience in elementary or high school. The team approach creates an intimate “school within a school” concept with groups of 100-125 students sharing the same four or five teachers. The teachers and guidance staff all meet regularly and exchange information to better support the students’ individual needs, as well as to facilitate interdisciplinary work. Whether studying World War II or the ancient Greeks, students are encouraged to approach their material from multiple angles. For instance, students write a sample newspaper for ELA that is backed up by their historical research in social studies.

Tyler Bluemling, JMS social studies, is another “homegrown” teacher, having graduated from Mt. Lebanon in 2001.  He says that with a whole team of teachers supporting them, it’s rare for students to “slip through the cracks.” This is partly because the team teachers get to know the children well, but also because the focus is on the whole child, not just performance in a given teacher’s field, he explains: “You don’t just teach social studies; you teach kids.” 

Mike Hladio, who teaches ELA at Jefferson, offers an example of teamwork in action.  “If something seems to be going on, like missing homework or a student being more quiet than usual, I mention something to a colleague at lunch. Then I send an email to the team leader asking if we can add the student to our agenda for the next meeting with the guidance department. She writes back immediately; she and the guidance counselor had just been talking about the student.  By the end of the day, we know what was going on.

This focus on the whole child also is reflected in regular time for community-building that is part of the curriculum.  In biweekly “Tuesday Talks” in their homerooms, the kids discuss topics such as inclusion, rumors, internet safety and other topics relevant to their lives. 

Middle school students have more freedom than they had in elementary school, which means developing time management skills. Photo: Jacqueline Radin

One of the key challenges of middle school is providing students the right balance of offering support and independence, as Donna Buckiso and her daughter, Olivia (JMS grade 6), Elm Spring Road, concur. Donna commends the school: “Independence is encouraged… [a parent] isn’t the one emailing the teacher—the students are. They do a good job teaching kids to be diligent.” Olivia’s advice to parents? “Don’t pester kids—let them do what they need to do. Parents aren’t involved in everything.” And for elementary students who are heading to middle school, she says, “No matter how many assignments you have, you work your way through. Don’t be nervous. Everybody is supportive. It’s more fun than you think it will be.”

Kara Gillespie, a guidance counselor at Mellon, says technology is the biggest challenge and benefit in kids’ lives today. “You get immediate responses, but then you demand immediacy. Worse, it’s a loss for their social skills when they’d prefer to be online to interacting with each other. They’re ‘together,’ but they aren’t.” 

Mellon Middle School guidance counselor Kara Gillespie chats with some students while performing her lunch period monitoring duties.  Photo: John Schisler

Mellon Middle School principal Chris Wolfson says the school takes a constructive approach to helping students use their devices wisely.

When electronics are used as part of classwork, students can use their own, as long as they are signed into the school Wi-Fi so their access is filtered safely.

Erin Morey, Briarwood Avenue, MMS parent, cited technology as a challenge. “The pull of electronic devices is irresistible, and they are widely available. Even if your kid doesn’t have access to YouTube, their friends will, and even things that seem benign can have racist, misogynist, or homophobic content.

It’s a good idea to keep an ear to the ground and know what media is problematic,” she says.

As middle schoolers are figuring out who they are, the curriculum supports this exploration. A unified arts rotation allows for a new special class every nine weeks:  Art, business information technology, family and consumer education, technology education rotate throughout all three years, with family consumer science added in seventh and eighth. In eighth grade, when English and literature combine, students gain a spot in their schedule to dig deeper into an elective for a full year, Karen Melvin, JMS art teacher, talks about the importance of arts education. “You aren’t just making ‘things’…you’re making meaning. That’s how you connect to the whole curriculum,” she says. “In the art room, there’s no answer to the equation. You’re deciding what the answer is.”


Band teacher Louise Marino leads a class through a rehearsal in her Mellon Middle School classroom.  Photo: John Schisler

Louise Marino, MMS band director, believes the arts help kids find themselves.  “The first attempt in learning is to fail,” she says. “[In music,] nobody’s going to be injured if they miss a few notes. If they continue to work, they’ll be able to do it.”

Of course, school isn’t just about, well, school.  Both middle schools host a variety of student-founded clubs and offer co-curricular opportunities for the wider community to partner with schools. A parent helps run the Girls Who Code club at Mellon, and Mt. Lebanon police officers sponsor their model club, where students and leaders come together to build model airplanes, cars and ships. Mt. Lebanon High School students tutor after school at both middle schools, so kids can get homework help from teens who remembers what it’s like. JMS has a new Gay Straight/Gender Sexuality Alliance and a Human Rights Club. For the sports lovers, running, basketball, flag football and other clubs serve sixth-graders.  Beginning in seventh grade kids can join in WPIAL (Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League) play. Erin Morey’s son, sixth-grader Max Busch, is a member of the Mellon literary magazine staff.

Based on class size, test scores and other criteria, both Mellon and Jefferson middle schools regularly appear on list of top state and national middle schools. Clearly, provide a nurturing environment in which students can thrive while also preparing for the rigors of high school and beyond. But just as middle schoolers have a lot to learn, there’s also a lot they can teach us, their teachers agree.

Says Molly Wetmore, ELA teacher at Jefferson, “I think the biggest lesson I’ve learned is to never underestimate people.  Over the years, I’ve found that kids who are the quietest in class, sometimes end up being the most charismatic performers when on stage. Or, sometimes the kids who struggle the most with simple spelling or reading can end up being the most creative when writing a story. Or, sometimes the kid who is the most forgetful or disorganized can end up being the kindest and most thoughtful. I think that’s the biggest lesson I’ve gotten from these kids.”

Marino talks about the joy she gets from middle schoolers; they teach adults to laugh more, have a sense of humor.  “Even when you most positively are at the end of your rope, they will make you laugh,” the band director says. “They’re just trying to figure out who they are, and sometimes the way they do it is hilarious.”

May we all go through life with the courage of a middle schooler and the compassion of their teachers!


[The middle school years] are three of the most formative years of their education/lives.  There is a lot more going on in the middle schools than just learning different subjects.”
Tyler Bluemling, teacher

As much as [middle school students] want to exert their independence, they still need mom and dad to give them the structure they need, to set the boundaries, to give them the OK to say, “I’m not allowed to do that because my parents don’t want me to.”
Louise Marino, teacher

We played Rose-Bud-Thorn:  your child discusses the best thing that happened today (rose), what they are looking forward to (bud) and the worst thing that happened today (thorn); the parent also states their rose, bud and thorn.  It encourages children to share what is on their mind and also allows the parents to teach kids that everybody has thorny days.
Laura Buerger, parent

Don’t yell at kids if they get a bad grade.
Max Busch, grade 6

… It’s good to let your kid know you are always there to listen and answer questions. Have another trusted family member, like a grandparent, they can also talk to about things that are stressing them out, in case they have a hard time talking to parents.
Erin Morey, parent

Developmentally, in sixth grade you exercise patience in fostering independence, and in eighth grade there’s more course correcting in how that’s applied. “OK, you’ve made an independent decision and it didn’t go well. How do we course correct?”
Mike Hladio, teacher

…It can be a strange transition to go into the middle school, where parents may not have extended opportunities to interact with the teachers.  Parents [need to learn to] step back… and let the children—in conjunction with their teachers—take the lead in directing their education.
Courtney Horrigan, parent

For some kids, some days in middle school are probably just as horrible as we remember them being.  But we have plenty of great days, too, filled with hard work and laughter… My colleagues and I work every day to try to make [great days] outnumber the bad.  Stephanie Ross, teacher

Keep lines of communication open with your middle schooler, but tread lightly…they’re diving into independence, so you want them to learn how to do it on their own. They still need a little push once in a while.
Kara Gillespie, guidance counselor