Celebrate the strength within. This positive message is at the heart of Visitation Academy’s newly dedicated middle school program. The all-girls Catholic school (except for toddlers through kindergarten) was founded in 1833 on the ideals of the Visitation sisters’ Salesian spirituality to ‘live Jesus.’ Until this year, it offered a lower school for toddlers through sixth grade and an upper school for seventh through 12th.

But as the school worked on a strategic plan in 2010, it felt the need for a bridge between the lower and upper schools. Head of school Rosalie Henry says they realized a distinct program would allow middle school students a greater chance to shine in their own leadership roles, academic endeavors and spiritual journeys. “This is the inaugural year, and the students absolutely love having their own middle school,” Henry says. “We can now cater to this unique group of girls at a time that will affect them the rest of their lives. We wanted to focus on giving these girls the structure and support they need in a nurturing, rigorous environment.”

Jane Eschmann, former assistant principal at CBC for 15 years, was named the new middle school principal, and Henry says she serves as a loving, nurturing ‘go-to person’ for both parents and students. Before the 2014-15 school year, Eschmann, who was on the board at Visitation when she was hired, spent a year collaborating with faculty and staff to establish a curriculum and extracurricular activities specifically designed for this age group. “They have their own student council, literary magazine, choir, creative writing club and campus minister, to name a few, and they’ll put on a separate play and Christmas concert,” she says.

Eschmann pulled faculty from the upper and lower schools who showed a sincere interest in moving to the middle school grade levels. “These years can be challenging for girls, so we got those involved who have a passion for teaching women of this age,” she notes. She says the teachers promote an interactive, investigative approach to learning that includes field trips and hands-on activities, such as outdoor team-building exercises for sixth-graders at Trout Lodge, a seventh-grade retreat in the Great Smoky Mountains and an eighth-grade trip to Washington, D.C. “Every experience is tied to the curriculum, but students are learning about socialization and how to work as a team, too,” she explains.

The girls also have a chance to interact and form friendships with those not in their class through the community system. Along with small adviser-led groups in each grade, the ‘communities’ include students from sixth through eighth grade. “Every grade level within the community plans a social or service activity each semester, which gives them a chance to get to know the other girls on a more personal level,” Eschmann explains.

From uniform distinctions to clubs and programs established for their needs, middle-schoolers now have multiple opportunities to stand out in the student body. “We don’t want to segregate them totally from the upper school, but they won’t be lost in the shuffle anymore,” Eschmann says. “They have their own place to shine, grow and lead.”

[Visitation Academy, located at 3020 N. Ballas Road, offers a coed Montessori early childhood program for ages 2 through kindergarten and an all-girls lower, middle and upper school for grades one through 12.For more information, call 314.625.9100 or visit visitationacademy.org.]