Middle school. The very memory of it prompts disgust. Here’s a thing no one’s thinking: Geez, I wish I still looked the way I did when I was 12. Middle school is the worst.

Tweenhood, which starts around age 9, is horrifying for a few reasons. For one, the body morphs in weird and scary ways. Certain parts expand faster than others, sometimes so fast that they cause literal growing pains; hair grows in awkward locations, often accompanied by awkward smells. And many kids face new schools and a new set of rules for how to act, both socially and academically.

But middle school doesn’t have to be like this. It could be okay. It could be good, even. After all, middle schoolers are “kind of the best people on Earth,” says Mayra Cruz, the principal of Oyster-Adams Bilingual School, a public middle school in Washington, D.C.

Take the massive variation in grade figurations. Some middle schools are combined on a single campus with their elementary- or high-school peers; most are siloed institutions grouped into two, three, or four grades—or just one. Starting a new school in middle school—a common experience for many students—can be devastating. That’s in large part because of how important social currency is at this age—starting school on a brand-new campus with unfamiliar people is bound to upend kids’ existing popularity hierarchies.

The notion that middle school deserves its own educational ecosystem at all dates back to the 1960s, with a campaign to better accommodate the specific learning needs of children ages 10 to 16. The movement drew from the work of twopsychologists, writes Phyllis Fagell in her new book, Middle School Matters—a movement prompted partially by a quest to strip intermediary grades of their “Jan Brady” syndrome, and by the sense that they were overlooked as the middle child of the K–12 family, an afterthought or a means to an end.

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