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Shadow Days at Our Prep School: A Conversation With Derrick Leasure and Tony Ballard

At Randolph-Macon Academy, students in our Middle School have been participating in Shadow Days. The experience gives these students the opportunity to learn what to expect once they reach the Upper School level, as well as to gain more of a focus on which subjects they’d like to pursue after graduation. Three groups of Middle School students have had the opportunity to shadow Upper School classes this year. With these Shadow Days, these students get a first look at courses specific to the Upper School, as well as a greater appreciation for what our older students get to do during their studies.

We spoke to RMA’s Assistant Dean, Derrick Leasure, and Middle School principal, Tony Ballard, to get their insight on why these days are important for eighth grade students, and what they gain from them. Here’s what they had to say.

What Middle School Students Can Get Out of Shadow Days

Shadow Days have been an ongoing part of R-MA life for many years now, with the aim of getting Middle School students more engaged in what the Upper School has to offer them. With these Shadow Days, students in the eighth grade are brought up to the Upper School’s ninth grade classes for a day or two, while matched with a “big brother or sister” from the Upper School and observing classes together with that Upper School student. 

Derrick Leasure is the Assistant Dean at R-MA, and former Middle School principal

R-MA has been allowing eighth grade students to be more selective about which courses they want to shadow in, with a chance to observe such Upper School-specific courses as the Aviation and Computer Science programs. “By and large, they’re not going to know what many of these other electives are about,” Leasure says. “Giving them the option to pick and choose which classes they’d like to see gives them some ownership, and makes it a little bit more interesting for them.”

Which Classes Are the Ones Students Want to See the Most?

Before the Shadow Days took place this year, students were surveyed on the classes they were most interested in shadowing. The results showed that the majority of these students wanted to observe electives like Computer Science and Air Force JROTC. Once the student has decided on their course of interest, R-MA coordinates a time with them to go do their shadowing. “With History, English, or any of the core classes, they’ve got a good feel of what that’s going to look like [in Upper School],” says Ballard. “But these [electives] are unique to R-MA. We feel like that’s what the Upper School does really well. We want to make sure the students understand that.”

Another element that eighth grade students at our prep school get to familiarize themselves with is our Air Force JROTC program. Here, instructors from the program—as well as the head of JROTC at our school—talk to these students, and demonstrate what Air Force JROTC at R-MA is all about. That said, although Air Force JROTC is a popular program for these students to shadow, Leasure emphasizes that it is not meant to prepare them for a career in the military. Rather, it’s about using the Air Force ethos to help them become better students before college. “JROTC at the high school level is really about supporting students’ leadership ability and character development,” he says, adding that only about 3% of students can go into a military program.

Tony Ballard is R-MA’s Middle School principal, helping prepare students for the ninth grade

Why These Special Days Are Important for Our Prep School’s Students

Although several eighth graders are already taking Upper School classes, such as in foreign languages, Shadow Days are a great way for students at our boarding junior school to feel better prepared for the next phase of R-MA life in Upper School. Moreover, these students also appreciate the chance to better understand the teaching styles of the instructors they could learn from next year, compared to their Middle School experience. “They just want to make sure that it’s going to be engaging, that there will be hands-on things going on,” Ballard says. “We can assure them that it’s going to be.”

By introducing these opportunities to Middle School students, R-MA aims to help alleviate any fears students may have about the next phase of their education. It also better focusses them on graduation and the leap to college. “They’re just better prepared, the boxes are checked, and everything’s done,” Leasure says. 

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