Henley Middle School

Henley sits opposite Brownsville Elementary, and across the road from Western Albemarle High School. Solidly rectangular, Henley was built the same year as Jouett Middle School, and shares the same floor plan.
My overwhelming impression of Henley was the students themselves. I was touring the building just prior to lunch, and in the middle of several class changes. As the bell rang, the formerly quiet halls were awash with young people. 6th-8th grades are those years that students hit growth spurts before and after their peers. Youth of all sizes suddenly filled the halls to the brim. Individual boys and girls towered over classmates of the same age and all rushed and chattered to the next class. “You’d better stand to one side,” Principal Costa cautioned me. Standing in the middle of the hall was somewhat akin to being at the beach, and letting the waves of water, or in this case, students, swirl around you.
During lunch, I was witness to a new experiment taking place. The students wanted to have a personalized soundtrack of music during their 20 minute lunch, and the principals had agreed to give it a try, with the caveat that the music had to be appropriate and curse-free. One young man had brought in a mix on a device to be played over the cafeteria’s sound system. As the music throbbed through the loudspeaker, the cafeteria chatter silenced, and then arose anew in questions and giggles. In the first minutes of this experiment, there was so much to observe. Boys towards the front of the room did some impromptu dance steps at their chairs. The boy who had created the mixtape felt the pressure of providing an entertaining mix– especially when an overly simplistic song went on too long. Female students near me rolled their eyes and proclaimed their disdain for the songs being played. Other students asked how they could get their music played.
On that day, playing the music was a result of a “why not?” mentality on the part of the administration, and an openness to try and iron out the kinks. Not far on the horizon was the spectre of rules and procedures in the interest of fairness and harmony. Principal Costa reminded the students several times of the need for the music to be appropriate– that parents would be upset at her, not at them. She mentioned that they’d have to figure out a way for students to be able to take turns in ways that would be fair. As the student went into adjust the music, he was encouraged by peers to turn the volume further up, so that the cafeteria filled with noise too loudly.
In the best case, Principal Costa and her administrative team, would be able to allow the students to self-regulate and come up with procedures and policies that would allow them autonomy, and self-governance. The low-stakes privilege of having music at lunch would be a learning opportunity for students to figure out systems that would make about 250 young people, if not happy about the day’s musical selections, at least acknowledge that the system in place was their own, and fair.
In the worst case, the administration could decide that it simply was too much trouble, and opt to play music of their own selection, or have no music at all. Parents could complain that they didn’t want their children exposed to “that” kind of music, and create grief for the administration. Students could find ways to undermine the experiment by bringing in subtlely inappropriate music, or claiming censorship.
All this is to say, a decision to play some student’s music could become so incredibly fraught and laden with potential pitfalls, that an administration could become conservative and battened down and afraid to grant freedoms. I was happy to see Principal Costa willing to work with the students, and willing to communicate her hesitancies and concerns with them. It seems ridiculous that playing some radio-friendly mix at lunchtime could be the kind of decision that becomes an issue, but we’ve seen it happen. Creating an atmosphere where students can feel ownership and autonomy in a large school is challenging, and I so appreciate the principals, teachers and administration that work to put it into place.

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