I remember clearly the first time I heard the term “JK-12ness.” During my interview process, I was driving with Head of School Search Committee Chair Molly Shotwell Oelerich ’87, as she began speaking about North Shore’s JK-12ness and what an important part of the community and culture that it was. I nodded knowingly, assumed I knew what she meant, filed it away, and eventually learned to mention it when I would extoll the virtues of North Shore.

Upper School students teach the anatomy of a Great White Shark to Lower School Students during the Build-An-Organism Interim.

Upper School students teach the anatomy of a Great White Shark to Lower School Students during the Build-An-Organism Interim.

For the uninitiated, JK-12ness is the shorthand term we use here for the warm, interconnected, intentional community that we strive to cultivate across the three Divisions of North Shore. It’s a somewhat fuzzy term that nicely captures the programmatic and cultural elements of school that help tie us together. Over the course of this year, I’ve already seen evidence of both pieces in numerous places. Some are the “classic” ones we always talk about as part of the North Shore experience: buddy days, Morning Ex, Homecoming, Winter Celebration, etc. These are structured opportunities for mixing across the Divisions. They are important and they indeed provide the backbone of JK-12ness.

In the last few weeks, though, I saw the true meaning of JK-12ness, in both program and culture, and it was touching and impressive. It wasn’t quite like the Grinch’s small heart growing three sizes that day but both experiences I had were meaningful and gave me a much more thoughtful understanding of the power of this JK-12 community.

The first example was when I was working after school and needed to mind my son Max until his hockey practice. I parked him across the hall from my office in a small seminar room with glass windows where he sat and read a book. I could see through the glass as an Upper School student stopped in the room to chat with Max. I couldn’t leave my meeting to investigate but could see a happy, animated conversation that lasted for about 10 minutes. It was if they were old friends. Later I asked Max, who had stopped in to chat with him. “Oh that was my buddy,” he said. When I asked what they had talked about, I got the full report: the book Max was reading, the relative success of the Bears’ and Packers’ seasons, plans for vacation. It was an unplanned moment, unspectacular in every way I suppose, but it made a huge impact on me as an observer. This young man had seen Max and went out of his way to stop in, say hello and engage him as an equal. He didn’t need to do that—it was not a formal buddy day—it was just kind and authentic and spontaneous. I knew then we are doing something right with JK-12ness.

The second instance happened a day or two later. We had a Morning Ex about Interim Week, where each of the Upper School Interim groups reported to the whole school, JK-12, what they had done together during that week. It was my first experience with this MEX and I admit that I was skeptical: How was this worth the time of the younger kids? Was it over their heads? Would they even understand or care? The presentations were great, but I left the Auditorium quickly and didn’t have time to reflect further until dinner that night. I had barely walked in the door when my seventh-grade daughter, Bella, announced that she knew what Interims she wanted to do—and when.  She had it all planned out in her mind: service trips here, travel there. My son chimed in, too: “We better have that fly-fishing trip when I’m in Upper School, that looked AWESOME.” They were energized and intrigued and thinking about their futures at North Shore.

The power of JK-12ness hit me harder than ever in those experiences: the bonds of kindness and caring that grow across Divisions, the primacy of “Live and Serve,” the pride of the Upper Schoolers in sharing their work, the true sense that each student in each grade is part of a larger whole, and the ability of the younger kids to imagine opportunities and envision themselves as older learners.

Our JK-12 structure makes these things possible; our small, combined campus allows regular contact; our community gatherings build connections and promote exchange; and our culture fosters the openness and empathy to share with each other. Lots of schools are JK-12, but North Shore’s JK-12ness is something special indeed.

North Shore Country Day School is a private, college-prep school for high school, middle school and elementary school students in Winnetka, IL, a suburb of Chicago.

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