Homecoming. For generations, this single word has evoked images of flashy floats, screaming fans, and well-dressed couples slow dancing under strings of twinkling lights. But the time-honored tradition of homecoming remains nearly exclusive to American high schools. Should middle schools join in on the fun too?
As an Education Reform Expert who has worked with districts across the country, I‘ve fielded this question for years from administrators, teachers and parents debating what role, if any, homecoming should play for 11 to 14 year-olds. In this comprehensive blog article, we‘ll unpack the signature elements of high school homecoming, examine key differences in middle level education, highlight common alternatives middle schools employ, analyze the complex developmental considerations, and outline recommendations on balancing rigor with fun.
High School Homecoming: A Rite of Passage
First, let‘s define this hallmark event. While high school homecoming traditions vary by region, school size and context, several signature elements tend to hold across most celebrations nationwide:
The Big Game
The high point for many homecoming festivities is the football game, immersed in school spirit. Students, families and alumni gather on Friday night to watch the school team compete, wearing their school colors and waving banners. In 2018, over 7.9 million high school students attended a home football game. Everyone‘s spirits run high during tailgates, halftime performances and watching their school hopefully secure a victory!
The Hot Ticket Dance
What‘s homecoming without the highly anticipated dance? Most schools host a special semi-formal boogie following the game or on Saturday night. Students don their finest attire to sway and mingle with friends, enjoying a DJ or live band. In a 2019 national survey by High Schools.com, 92% of students rated their homecoming dance as one of their most exciting and memorable social events of high school. For generations, it‘s represented a rite of passage.
High school students dressed their finest for homecoming traditions like glitzy dances.
Showing Their True Colors
To drum up excitement in the week leading up to the big game and dance, high schools often host spirit week, featuring daily themed dress-up days. Students showcase their creativity through costumes representing their school colors, mascots, inside jokes or other fun motifs like tacky tourist day. Not only does it allow teens to show their school spirit, it also builds anticipation for the main events.
At many schools, a homecoming court is crowned at a special ceremony during the football game‘s halftime show. Students vote to select representatives from each grade as well as one Homecoming Queen and King. It‘s considered a huge honor, especially for seniors, to be elected to the court or as royalty by their peers.
Believe it or not, homecoming actually traces back over 100 years! The University of Missouri is credited with hosting the first homecoming event in 1911, welcoming back alumni to campus. High schools adopted the tradition in the 1920s, which quickly swept across the country.
Middle School Realities: Less Pomp, More Circumstance
Given the grand scale of typical high school homecoming celebrations, should middle schools join in on the fun too? Often, they don‘t – and there are some valid reasons why.
As an Education Reform Expert, I‘ve seen these key differences between high school and middle school first-hand through my work consulting districts across the country.
Academic Achievement Takes Priority
Unlike high school, which marks the beginning of curriculum specialization through electives and social opportunities, middle school remains focused on core academic mastery. Not only are students prepping for high school by taking foundational math, English language arts, social studies and science courses, they‘re also undergoing standardized testing.
In fact, researchers at Brown University studying middle level education trends found that:
- 58% of class time is devoted to core content vs 42% for elementary school
- State and district-based testing doubles from grades 3-8
With so much emphasis on academic rigor and achievement at the middle level, there often isn‘t bandwidth for extensive extracurricular activities. Establishing strong study skills and content knowledge takes priority over hosting multifaceted events like homecoming under most district calendars and budgets.
Age Plays a Role Too
It‘s also important to consider developmental appropriateness when examining middle school activities. The average middle school student falls between the ages of 11 to 14 years old. Early adolescence represents a time of rapid growth and change across physical, neurological and social-emotional domains.
Hormones shift gears. Bodies stretch into unfamiliar proportions seemingly overnight. Students start asserting independence and questioning adults’ views. Peer approval feels like matter of life or death one moment and meaningless the next.
The flashy school dances, royalty competitions, and couples culture frequently wrapped up in high school homecoming themes may not align developmentally with most middle schoolers’ maturity levels and social interests.
Middle school administrators focus on creating inclusive, developmentally-appropriate events.
As an educator who has worked closely with this age group, I‘ve found it crucial to meet students where they are versus expecting high school-level sophistication or inclusion too soon.
Missing a Key Ingredient: Football
Let’s also address the elephant on the field. Most middle schools don’t have football teams, which are the catalyst for traditional homecoming festivities. Medium-sized adolescent bodies haven’t filled out yet to safely play such a rough contact sport. The majority of middle schoolers either don‘t play or participate through independent youth league teams.
Without a unifying school team to rally around, it poses challenges for middle schools to recreate the same homecoming hype focused on ‘the big game‘.
Alternatives for Building Belonging
All that being said, creating opportunities for middle school students to cultivate school spirit and camaraderie remains important during this impressionable life phase. What are some popular ways middle schools build community without going all-out for homecoming?
Through my consulting work, I’ve witnessed schools successfully employing the following strategies:
Many middle schools tap into the homecoming spirit literally! They’ll designate a special day or week where students can participate in themed dress-up days—crazy socks, grade color days, tacky tourist attire, historical figure lookalikes, etc. It allows teens to show their school pride through self-expression while building energy and connections.
I once visited a school that held peculiar pet and zoo animal dress-up days. You’ve never seen such creative penguin, rabbit and sloth interpretations – it was hysterical!
More low-key dances are a middle school mainstay. Many schools will use homecoming’s fall timing to host a fun friendsy dance, whether it has an actual homecoming designation or another theme like Halloween Sock Hop, Masquerade Ball, Disco Fever, etc. With decorations, themed photo booths and modern/oldies tunes, it offers adolescents a lively chance to let loose.
What better way to gather middle schoolers collectively than a pep rally? These school-wide spirit assemblies cultivate excitement and belonging through performances by cheer teams, bands, dance crews, and more, with plenty of cheers and chants. Students leave feeling like they‘re part of something greater than themselves.
One district I worked for hosted grade-level rallies at the end of testing weeks, which I thought represented such a creative way to bolster morale and motivation.
Analyzing the Debate: Should Middle Schools Host Homecoming?
With a more thorough understanding now of homecoming’s history, hallmarks at the high school level, and differences between adolescent versus teen programming suitability and priorities, let’s dive deeper into analyzing the debate…
Should middle schools organize traditional homecoming celebrations on par with typical high school festivities?
Valid arguments exist on both sides:
Potential Benefits of Middle School Homecoming
Despite key variances in appropriate activities by age, there could be some social-emotional and academic advantages to middle schools hosting adapted, full-scale homecoming events:
- Fostering School Spirit Early: Cultivating connectedness and pride in one‘s school community from an early age establishes strong engagement and involvement over time. Schools who invest in school spirit see higher graduation rates, test scores and alumni support.
- Bridging Transitions: Providing incoming 6th graders a taste of the homecoming experience seen at upper grade levels can help demystify this coming-of-age hallmark, easing anxiety about the future.
- Learning By Doing: Involvement in planning homecoming events further develops young adolescents’ organizational skills, responsibility, leadership abilities, and decision-making capacities. All will prove valuable across life domains.
Reasons for Caution
At the same time, some social and emotional hazards seem plausible regarding full-blown homecoming events at the middle level:
- Misaligned Cognitive & Social Growth: The elaborate attire expectations, popularity contest elements, public date requests and couple focus frequently wrapped up in high school homecoming rituals just don’t fit most middle schoolers developmental capacities yet.
- Risk of Social Exclusion: Class royalty elections and court could heighten competitiveness and result in hurt feelings or rejection beyond most adolescents’ coping abilities at this stage.
- Displaces Academics: The huge time commitments required of student government and staff volunteers for intensive event planning could undermine middle school‘s primary focus on academic rigor.
Comparing developmental alignment of middle versus high school activities
I‘ve heard impassioned arguments on both sides over the years. In the end, research on positive youth development aligns best with a balanced approach…
Striking the Right Chord: Rigor and Fun in Harmony
So what’s the final verdict – yay or nay for middle school homecoming? As with most complex issues involving young adolescent education and programming, the solution lives between the extremes.
Development First, Community Always
Ultimately, all middle school activities should align with students‘ developmental needs and capacities first and foremost. Any events should seek to cultivate an inclusive community identity centered around simple fun rather than status, competition or couples.
Everything in Moderation
Moreover, balance remains key. Hosting spirit days or moderately-themed dances allows students to gain social-emotional benefits of participating in beloved traditions without usurping academics. However, going overboard with post-game dances, door decorating contests and homecoming court campaigns doesn‘t fit most middle school contexts.
Customize to Your Context
As middle school administrators, educators and parents debate what role, if any, homecoming should play, decisions should revolve around specific school community needs and values.
If hosting an event would undermine academic priorities or pose unnecessary social-emotional risks, don‘t push it. But if adapted activities would boost joy and inclusiveness, forge ahead!
I‘ve found success comes down to maintaining student developmental needs at the center of planning, remaining flexible to meet schools‘ unique needs, and keeping things reasonable in scale.
Finding the right balance between rigor and fun looks different for every middle school.
Key Takeaways for Middle School Decision Makers
I hope this thorough exploration has helped frame factors at play as you consider if and how homecoming could work for your middle school. As an Education Reform Expert, I‘ll leave you with a few closing recommendations:
Survey Students First
Get input directly from your students! Find out what kind of fall fun traditions they‘d enjoy most. Be sure to ask lots of open-ended questions and really listen to what they share.
Involve Families & Community
Parents, school staff and community partners likely have valuable perspectives to consider regarding event options too. Collaborate to align on appropriate activities.
Appoint a Committee
Creating a planning committee with diverse stakeholders ensures key considerations don‘t get overlooked. Assign clear roles and ground rules upfront to enable efficiency.
Chart Progress Year Over Year
If you decide to host new events, track participation rates, conduct surveys, monitor academics and behavioral referrals to assess what‘s working well or any issues arising. Tweak supportively as needed.
Homecoming can hold a special place in the school memories we carry with us through life. And every student deserves chances to feel like they fully belong to their school community. Ultimately, nurturing engagement opportunities best suited to your middle schoolers’ developmental needs will help ensure all adolescents thrive, now and in the future.