Middle school is hard. It’s always been a challenging time in education, and the pandemic has only compounded the challenges. Given that, how do you transform a middle school to create an environment where—despite the social, emotional, and biological transformations of students at this age—they have stability and opportunities to thrive? A good place to answer this question is Socorro’s own Sarracino Middle School.

What is SMS doing to engage students? For one, they have prioritized experience and capitalized on the Friday learning opportunities with field trips around the state. What better way to learn about New Mexico history than to visit a historic site? Students visited Fort Stanton and Lincoln State Park and saw the actual bullet hole in the wall from a Billy the Kid showdown, and visited the courthouse where he was tried and the jailhouse where he served. Learning about these events in context provides a deep educational experience. Physical science students received a firsthand introduction to the atomic age and peaceful applications of nuclear technology with a trip to the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History. Sixth graders learned about civics with a trip to the Roundhouse during the Legislative session.

Students met local and national professional artists during trips to the Albuquerque Comic Convention. The artists discussed art as a career, what to focus on in school, and shared their personal stories to help students realize they have the power to create their future. All of this on top of a private painting class and the opportunity to meet voice-over actors.

SMS students also learned about New Mexico heritage with a trip to the world’s oldest and largest hot air balloon fiesta. Since these trips are supported through federal grants, they all include lesson plans that demonstrate educational value.

Closer to home, a school-wide collaborative service project started with the coding class making electronic Valentine’s Day cards that members of the student council delivered to seniors at the Good Samaritan Center. They were accompanied by Sarracino’s student band who played several tunes for the seniors.

Sarracino principal Holly Mayfield recognizes middle school as more than a bridge from elementary to high school, but as the foundation for careers. The theme for academics is “hands-on & rigorous,” which emphasizes career and technical education. One example is the new gardening program which has a network of hydroponic growing systems in classrooms across the school which provides enough produce to add to the salad bar at lunch–and has inspired students and teachers alike.

Behind the scenes is close collaboration between the principals at SMS and Socorro High School to provide a seamless transition from middle to high school by recruiting middle school students into the college and career programs, GEAR UP and Upward Bound Math and Science. Eighth graders toured labs at New Mexico Tech, witnessed cool science demonstrations, and experienced their hometown college campus through a lens on the inside.

SMS also recognizes that underlying the academic mission is a need for supporting the social-emotional needs of students. While much remains to be done, SMS is working to find resources to meet the needs of all students. This includes weekly mindfulness training for sixth graders.

How does this translate into student achievement? Students have demonstrated considerable growth in language arts, according to results of standardized tests. Math and reading scores have fluctuated, but the first step toward steering students toward success is getting them to school and engaging them. SMS is doing a great job moving in that direction, and the next step includes cultivating leadership so students have the skills and confidence to take ownership of their education.