Sunset Middle Embraces the 3E principles

Empowering an Engaged, Empathetic Community: Sunset Middle School #3E

When Sunset Middle School became an official IB (International Baccalaureate) World Focus School, not much changed. Of course, new systems and structures were put into place; new roles emerged, alongside courses and formal responsibilities. But fluid progress has always been a central part of Sunset’s continuously evolving story. While the honor of the new designation brought a wealth of new momentum, it was also a catalyst for reflection, on just how much this tight-knit educational community has going for it.

The 2017-2018 academic year marked the first full year of Sunset Middle School as an IB school. Immersing themselves in what that entailed, Principal Anthony Barela and his team were struck by how well their longtime philosophy aligned with IB programming, known internationally for its dedication to instilling knowledge and skills that send students into the world as strong, confident, globally aware leaders and people. Over the summer, Principal Barela, Assistant Principal Mary Ellen Graziani, and IB Coordinator Alex Armstrong came up an idea: let’s find a fresh new way to sum up, and showcase, the greatness that is what we’re all about. “We wanted something simple and memorable that encompassed our philosophy,” says Graziani.

“We wanted to somehow encapsulate the set of principles that makes up our more in-depth learning philosophy. We came up with #3E.”

Sunset Middle School’s Mission statement declares itself as “an engaging learning community focusing on academics and the arts—a place to inspire and be inspired, develop perspective and empathy for society’s problems, and to leave being prepared for the future and empowered to make the world a better place.” Thoughtfully considering mission and message, Barela, Graziana and Armstrong found three words stood out: Engage, Empathize, Empower. These three words serve as strongholds. Add a hashtag for some kicks and you’ve got a brand. Look into the heart of that brand, you’ll find the pulse of what the Sunset Middle School community is all about.

Step into the halls of Sunset, and be greeted by a friendly air of shared respect. Students are comfortable confiding in their teachers. Principal Barela’s office is a welcome stop-in, one where students come in to collect ‘Spartan Awards’ on a weekly basis. Students can be nominated for Spartan Awards by any teacher, who note demonstrated characters traits such as being inquisitive, reflective, principled, open-minded and more.

“I like how teachers here really communicate and push you to get your work done; also, they make sure you get what you need, and you’re able to keep learning all the time,” says 8th grader Antonio Amaya Sidoti. “Challenge work here is not just ‘extra work’,” fellow 8th grader Alyssa Crow adds. “I really appreciate my classes—that there are honors classes, and the whole overall atmosphere.”

What makes the culture at Sunset so palpably comfortable? Many factors are at play, but not least the conscious efforts to think from other points of view. Imagining occupying another’s shoes goes far beyond the realm of cliché in practice. “What I like about Sunset is it’s all balanced,” says 8th grader Javier Amaya Esparza. 

“Everyone gets treated equally. It doesn’t matter your background because everyone is the same here. Everyone gets the supports they need.” “Everyone is really a team here,” says 8th grader Ayla Samatas. “Mr. Barela really shows us how we should feel what other people are feeling. Teachers are always encouraging us, reminding us, ‘hey, if you see someone sitting alone, imagine how they might be feeling’.”

Empathy extends beyond student to student at Sunset. Students here take into account how their teachers may be feeling, too. Engagement fosters the building of genuine relationships to the extent that students will even give up their free time to help their teachers. In fact, prior to school starting, not only did Amaya Esparza and Amaya Sidoti donate hours of time helping a beloved social studies teacher set up her classroom, they further volunteered to assist with 6th grade registration. “We are close with Miss Cook, and we just wanted to help her,” says Amaya Esparza.

It’s not algebra, but it’s an equation. Engagement + Empathy = Empowerment. Students at Sunset are empowered to take initiative, share input, explore and follow through on ideas. Teachers and administrators are thrilled to be rolling out more and more leadership opportunities for their students, from daily administrative tasks to founding clubs to pursuing community-based projects.

Jobs such as reading the daily announcements are increasingly becoming student-led. “I was nervous at first,” Crow says of taking on the role, newly available to students as of this year. “But gradually I think I’ll get used to it.” There’s a satisfaction that comes with delivering on the job, Crow adds.

Motivated by Spartan spirit, early on in the semester students at Sunset conceived of the idea of putting together a newspaper, and approached Graziani for her thoughts and guidance. The team hit the ground running, and is already working with the learning technology coach Karen Hoppis to develop a template with a predictable format. “The club is going to meet weekly after school,” Graziani says. “Their plan is to produce something all digital, with regular sections, available in English and Spanish.”

Alongside shared responsibilities, clubs and activities, a key focus all students nurture and expand upon throughout their years at Sunset is a community project. “The teachers emphasize that we need to be really engaged and passionate about what we choose for our project,” Samatas says. She adds that there is a strategic evolution to how the projects are approached. In seventh grade, for example, the classes work as a unit. Last year, Samatas’ class worked together to donate to the OUR Center. Now in eighth grade, she and her peers are looking forward to coming up with and developing projects independently.

Helping to fuel the entrepreneurial, visionary spirit at Sunset, Armstrong has been working tirelessly with Director of Community and Business Development at St. Vrain Valley Schools, Matt Wiggins, bringing in numerous community organizations to meet with students and share knowledge. “Our goal is, students will leave Sunset with skills, attitudes, and beliefs to really impact the world,” Armstrong says. “We do everything we can to give them the tools to do that. Community organizations already doing that can inspire them--but if they can come up with something totally new, not even done yet, all the better.”

“These kids are going on to do great things, without a doubt,” Barela says of his many students, all of whom he knows by name. “Doesn’t it make you feel positive knowing they are going to shape the future? We’re in good hands. I’m so proud of them.”