WESTWOOD — Xaverian Brothers High School isn’t what it used to be. For the first time in more than 50 years, the all-male Catholic prep school has expanded to include a new middle-grades program, adding young adolescents to the mix on its Westwood campus.
The school accepted its first seventh-grade class this year, under a plan to phase in the seventh- and eighth-grade program over two years. The 111 students in seventh grade this year have their own section of the existing facility.
In reaching down to the middle grades, Xaverian Brothers is embracing a model that increasingly is becoming more common among Catholic independent high schools. By this time next year, St. John’s Preparatory School in Danvers will introduce a sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-grade program. St. Mary’s High School, in Lynn, added a sixth grade to its program three years ago.
Administrators say accepting the students as young as 11 or 12 years old allows them to grow into the culture of a school, and to adapt more quickly to the academics that will be expected by ninth grade.
At Xaverian Brothers, Brother Daniel Skala, the school’s headmaster, said parents had been asking for a middle-grades component for years. It was a route that had already been taken by several of its competitors in the Boston market: Boston College High School in Dorchester, St. Sebastian’s School in Needham, and Roxbury Latin School in West Roxbury.
Xaverian Brothers spent a year planning the curriculum for what it calls its Francis Xavier Division, and hired teachers and promoted an administrator, Jay McGilvray, who had experience with adolescents and middle school education.
The seventh-grade class is integrated into the school’s culture and expectations. The students attend class in their own part of the building, but the same extracurricular activities and academic support made available in high school are made available to them, Skala explained.
The curriculum is sensitive to the needs of the adolescents. Organizational skills and study skills are reinforced in all classes but get their own instruction daily, McGilvray said.
The typical seventh-grade uniform, a light blue polo shirt and khaki pants, was relaxed on a recent Friday, when the boys were raising funds for upcoming school service trips.
Most of the boys participated, and many contributed a few dollars more to wear a hat.
David Palmieri, who teaches theology at the high school, began teaching seventh-graders this year as well.
The experience is completely different, he said, as he prepared to dismiss his youngest charges.
“The amount of energy and enthusiasm they have? There’s something inspiring about it,” he said. When one of his seventh-graders interrupts, or jumps up in his seat, Palmieri sees the innocence. “They don’t mean to shout out. They just get excited.”
In Danvers, St. John’s Prep is constructing a new academic building that will house high school classrooms, while the new middle school students will attend class in the renovated Brother Benjamin Hall. About 300 students will attend, starting in September 2015, according to headmaster Edward P. Hardiman.
The expansion has been planned for three years, he said, allowing time to expand the campus and develop a curriculum that meets the needs of adolescents.
School leaders were motivated by interest from parents and research that showed boys decide in middle school whether they will continue in education, he said. About 70 percent of its students come from public schools, he said.
“Middle school is really a time when young adolescents, especially boys, consciously or unconsciously decide whether or not school is for them,” Hardiman said.
At Xaverian Brothers, the move to expand to the middle school grades came, in part, once administrators recognized that at its traditional entry point, the ninth grade, students initially struggled academically.
The market demand is there, Skala noted.
More than 300 students applied for seats in the inaugural class. About 60 percent of the students in seventh grade came from public schools, most from the southern and western suburbs.
The close-in suburbs have well-regarded school systems, he said, but parents are choosing a culture as much as a school.
“We know what boys are interested in; we know how boys learn,” Skala said.
That’s what Kathleen Hayes was looking for, as a parent.
Her two oldest sons have already graduated from Xaverian Brothers.
She has another son in the 10th grade this year, and twin sons in the seventh-grade class. The Weymouth family had sent all of the children to Catholic elementary schools. She was looking for a smoother transition to the high school program.
“It’s a big, big transition for these boys to come out of any school,” she said. “They would have an extra two years to prepare them for what they really wanted in high school.”Mary MacDonald can be reached at marymacdonald3
@aol.com. Follow her on Twitter @MaryF_MacDonald.