Shady Side Academy Middle School: Explore, Engage, Excel

shady side academy northern connection magazine

Imagine a place where your child can explore new interests in a safe, supportive atmosphere. Envision a place where she can engage with caring educators committed to her individual needs. Picture a place where he will learn to excel in academics, arts, athletics – and in life. Shady Side Academy is that place. 

The middle school years are a time of great transition, as children are growing at a rapid pace socially, emotionally and intellectually. It’s a time when kids are trying to figure out who they are, searching for their strengths and voices.

Shady Side Academy Middle School eases students through this important transition from child to teen. From its dedicated sixth grade wing and specialized tutorial program to the reassuring anchor of its advisory system, SSA offers support systems to help students meet new academic and personal challenges. Students begin to make choices, take on more responsibilities, and learn to advocate for themselves in a supportive environment that encourages intellectual risk-taking.

Shady Side Academy is a nationally respected private school with three age-specific campuses. The Middle School enrolls approximately 200 boys and girls in grades 6 through 8 on a beautiful 35-acre campus in Fox Chapel, which includes an academic building with a gym, library, three science labs (two recently renovated) and two computer labs, plus a school garden and two athletic fields. Middle School students also use athletic facilities at the nearby SSA Senior School.

With small classes, individual attention and a rigorous curriculum, Shady Side Academy sets students far ahead.

“One of the things that makes our school different is the size,” said Amy Nixon, head of the Middle School. “Classes are generally around 15 or 16 kids, so the adults in the building get to know each child very well as an individual – both as a learner and as a human being.”

According to parents, it’s the quality of the teachers and the relationships they build with students that set Shady Side Academy Middle School apart.

“I feel confident that every day my children are taught by faculty members who love their discipline,” said June Navid of Fox Chapel, whose three children have all attended SSA Middle School. “Who ever heard of a Latin teacher being so animated during a class discussion about living a responsible and committed life that the class erupts in applause? Or an English teacher who encourages her students to wrestle with the idea of injustice and sensitively interview someone who has suffered from it? These experiences are just part of a regular day at SSA Middle School.”

“The teachers’ expectations are high and mindful of each child’s capabilities,” Navid continued. “I do not have to beg for enrichment or support. They know their students’ strengths and weaknesses very well.”

The curriculum features a balance of inquiry, skill development, critical thinking and subject mastery. It helps students build excellent study habits, while encouraging intellectual curiosity and cooperative learning. Students learn to reason logically, communicate clearly, and use factual information to support their ideas.

“Everybody who’s here wants to be here, so our teachers walk into a class of kids who are eager to learn,” said Nixon. “Our job is to set the bar high, and then to help them get over it. All of their peers are in the same boat – everybody’s working, so it becomes the norm. It’s fun, and it’s engaging, and it increases their ability to soar.”

Academic highlights include a strong math program that builds excellent problem-solving skills. The Math in Focus Singapore Math curriculum in sixth grade and pre-algebra classes builds a foundation for studies in algebra and geometry – and for the problem-based math curriculum at the Senior School.

The science program utilizes a collaborative, project-based approach to teaching, as students explore the world through a mixture of classroom, laboratory and field trip experiences. Courses integrate reading, writing and analytical thinking skills with scientific inquiry. Students also have the opportunity to compete on the Science Olympiad, robotics or rocketry teams.

The language program offers studies in Spanish, Latin and Mandarin Chinese. Sixth graders take one trimester of each language, and then choose one of the three to continue studying in seventh and eighth grade.

In every class, students gain an intuitive grasp of technology using tablets, computers and SMART Boards. Each student receives an Apple iPad through the school’s 1:1 iPad program, and teachers incorporate technology into classes in creative and meaningful ways. A recently revamped computer science curriculum introduces students to coding and program design.

A broad arts curriculum includes classes in visual arts and music as well as optional music and theatre groups. Students can choose to audition for five different advanced choral and instrumental ensembles, or to participate in the fall play or winter musical.

At the end of each day, all students have an athletic/activity period in which they participate in sports or another co-curricular activity. Each student chooses one activity per trimester, and choices include competitive and non-competitive sports teams, dramatic productions, studio art classes, competitive science teams, a literary magazine, and tending the school garden. This program encourages students to try new things and explore different sides of themselves at a time when self-discovery is so important. Lessons learned in these afternoon activities include teamwork, cooperation, perseverance and sportsmanship.

SSA Middle School students are supported every step of the way by a team of passionate educators. Every student has a faculty advisor, who oversees his or her growth and progress. The advisor sees the student at least three times a day: at homeroom, morning break and conference period. Each advisor has an advisee group of approximately 10 students, and these small groups form close bonds throughout the year.

The daily schedule includes a 40-minute conference period each afternoon, when students return to their homerooms with their advisors. It’s designed to give students time to start their homework, and more importantly, to go and see teachers for extra help or to ask questions about their assignments. The goal is to help students develop the skills to be proactive learners.

“The critical piece is always knowing what you don’t know, and then, knowing how to get that information,” said Nixon. “Is there any better lesson for life, let alone in school?”

In addition, the school has a licensed clinical psychologist, a learning specialist and a full-time nurse on staff to support students’ academic, personal and physical needs.

With so many caring adults to nurture and guide them, SSA students not only become proficient learners but also gain an understanding of how to be better citizens in an ever-changing, diverse world. The Academy’s five Guiding Principles of honesty, kindness, responsibility, respect and safety form the foundation of a character education program that helps Middle School students learn that what they do matters.

“Every child leaves here with some kind of success under his or her belt,” said Nixon. “They go off happily, eager to hit the next phase of their lives and open to successes there.”

To learn more, visit or contact Admissions Director Jeff Gross at 412-968-3155. Upcoming events for interested families include include a Middle School Science Showcase on Nov. 21 and an Admissions Open House on Dec. 10.