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Magazine of CA

Showing Up for Each Other

October 13, 2023

WHAT‘S BEST FOR OUR KIDS?

To be fair, that’s a question that is always top of mind for Head of Middle School Josette Huntress. But in the fall of 2021— with students set to return to Middle School after two years of COVID-disrupted learning— it felt particularly pressing.

ONE SOLUTION?

Community Days.

“Our kids had been so isolated during COVID. Now we were going to ask them to sit in a classroom—to socialize, collaborate, and solve problems. The development of those skills was interrupted,” reflects Huntress. “We needed to set them up for success. And we needed to do it in a way that didn’t call out any single student but signaled that we are all in this together, that asked ‘How can we best show up for each other?’” Community Days bring together the entire Middle School for age-appropriate experiences designed to flex social and emotional learning muscles that atrophied during the isolation of the pandemic. Once a month, in a low-stakes environment, students learn just how to be a CA community member—how to approach difficult topics, set boundaries, lean into authenticity and openness, embrace difference, protect mental health, navigate relationships, improve communication, and more.

“During Community Days, you don’t just learn about yourself; you learn about other people and how to interact with them—like when we learned about consent or setting healthy boundaries. It builds you as a person,” shares Hogan Wendt, ‘27.

Community Days, Cary Academy

Through inclusive community-building experiences (think ropes courses, Charger Cup, or peer dialogues led by Upper Schoolers from across the Quad), students create a foundation that enables vulnerable connection, self-expression, active listening, and deeper learning. In intensive workshops, guided by faculty and outside experts, they tackle complex themes—such as anti-racism, bullying, consent, and healthy friendships—to create a shared vocabulary and establish a set of community expectations on which everyone can build.

“These days solidify for the kids what it means to be part of this community and what we do to make sure that everybody feels safe and welcome. It’s giving the formula for how our community works— what flies and what doesn’t,” shares Matt Koerner, Middle School seventh-grade social studies teacher. “And it ties in nurtured risk-taking; students know they can try new things—that they aren’t going to be penalized for trying to figure out who they are and what their role is in the community.”

Indeed, whether rocking the mic at the poetry slam, engaging with new upper-class friends during cross-grade-level pod time, or participating in thoughtful debate, self-expression is an encouraged dimension of Community Days.

We want all students to feel as though they can be their authentic self here. Our goal is to have every student leave Community Day feeling seen and connected and proud to be a CA community member,” shares Assistant Head of Middle School Nicky Allen. “And we’ve been so impressed with how seriously students have taken it, how they understand the importance of these days—how attentive, vulnerable, and genuine they have been with each other.”

“During Community Days, you’re doing a lot of personal reflection, but you are also doing it as a part of a group, which brings you closer together. It helps you see the whole person, rather than just the half that they only show in school,” shares Sachir Tharwani, ‘27.

“You really get to reflect on your peers’ experiences,” adds Juliette Alvarez, ‘27. “Most of the time—I’m just gonna say it—teenagers can be selfish. We don’t always want to look at others’ struggles or consider what their lives are like; we’re more focused on ourselves. When we have Community Days, it really helps me open my eyes to my peers’ lives as well.”

Fostering that kind of empathy is at the heart of Community Day. “These days aren’t just about building our CA community; it’s also being aware of the broader community in which we live,” shares Koerner.

To that end, Community Day often takes students into, well, the community. Students might engage in service learning opportunities or hear from experts—past guests have included veterans, Holocaust survivors, local migrant workers, or members of the CA community who migrated to the United States from abroad—that exemplify the diversity of life experiences, cultures, knowledge, and perspectives of those beyond our campus.

“Community Days just make you feel so connected to the world. I’ve met so many people and learned so much; you learn different peoples’ stories and you interact with people that you might not normally. It makes you more empathetic; it makes you open- minded,” shares Emma Curtis-Maury, ‘28.

Now, two years later, what started as a stop-gap measure to play developmental catch-up has proven invaluable, thanks to the faculty and staff who immediately jumped at the idea and ran with it. As a result of their creativity and flexibility, Community Days have become an enduring and beloved hallmark of the Middle School experience, one inextricably tied to our mission.

“At CA, we believe that creating a secure and affirming culture enables both the individual and the community to flourish. Our most impactful learning occurs when people, disciplines, and ideas connect to address human and community needs,” offers Huntress. “When we focus on building an inclusive environment, we’re paving the way for more academic security for our students.”

Written by Mandy Dailey, Director of Communications

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