In order for youth to learn, discover and grow, they need to feel comfortable in their surroundings and feel good about themselves. This type of environment rarely happens by chance, but instead arises out of deliberate planning and careful implementation. 

Forest Lake Area Middle School has put a great deal of emphasis on creating a culture that is supportive of students, specifically working to meet the unique needs of youth in those early teenage years.

To start, we hire teachers and other staff who deeply enjoy working with youth and challenging them to be their best. During staff meetings and other professional development times we explore new and inventive ways to build strong connections with students. We have flipped the traditional way schools go about daily activities and instead we focus on the experience each student has from the moment they get off the bus, step out of their car, or park their bike in the morning to the time they head home for the day. Staff greet students at the door of the building, welcoming them in and putting special effort into getting to know them as people. 

Our school benefits from the expertise of faculty members who have gone through teacher preparation programs lasting between four to seven years. Because of this high level of skill development, we have classrooms where lessons are well-designed, individual learning styles are accommodated, and behavior management and routines are well established. Parents are not going to find a better learning environment in the area.

We also work hard to plan for a smooth transition into middle school. Students come to us from many different elementary schools, so we use a thorough transition and orientation program for students and parents that creates a soft landing when they arrive in 7th grade. We have designed our school and our teacher schedule to allow for smaller learning communities that foster deep personal relationships between students and staff as well as from student to student. 

In addition to the highly trained and committed group of teachers, our students are also supported by a guidance counselor. Each of our small learning communities, referred to as our teams, have a designated counselor to work with youth and teachers, supporting personal growth and academic planning. These counselors also help students address worries that they have in their lives, and get students and families connected to community resources if necessary. The counselors also visit classrooms and teach lessons on digital safety that are so important to every growing teenager soon entering adulthood. 

All of this additional support provides the foundation for a challenging curricular experience for students that includes opportunities in three foreign languages, advanced coursework, and the ability for some students to begin earning high school credit even while still enrolled in the middle school. We work with our students in developing key, identified life skills that are essential to being successful in life. Critical-thinking, creativity, communication, collaboration, and character are skill areas that we work on with students in our advisory lessons and honor in our student recognition program. 

To help students develop a deeper care and empathy for others, we provide a school kindness (anti-bullying) program that gets in front of potential issues and helps teach students appropriate skills in how we treat others. This creates a positive and safe environment where kids can flourish academically and make new friends. 

We also provide opportunities for students to serve their community. Last year our students packed 4,000 meals for Twin Cities children and adults experiencing homelessness. This year, we have another large service project planned with Feed My Starving Children. 

With all of these opportunities for students to grow personally and academically, we’ve set up a path through the middle school years that allows students to thrive, and builds a foundation for their success in high school and beyond. 

J.P. Jacobson is the principal of Forest Lake Area Middle School. He can be reached at jpjacobson@flaschools.org.

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