Saturday, September 21, 2013



By about January 2014 the documentary “The Rule” will be ready for public viewing (by that time all the required permissions for copyrighted photos etc. will have been be obtained). Meanwhile there have been private showings of this 90-minute documentary film about Newark Abbey and our school.

One comment that keeps coming up in discussions at these screening goes like this: Granted that the educational model used by St. Benedict’s Prep works well for inner-city teenagers, the reason it works is because of the presence of the monks. To replicate it you need a community of dedicated monks. 
Another is "Public schools could never use this model because it's religious." I was really surprised when Columbia Teachers College in New York (my alma mater) adopted the movie as a model for urban education and agreed to write an accompanying curriculum to be used in conjunction with it. Obviously they must see something there besides a bunch of Catholic monks. 

So, how do you tease apart the various threads here? For starters, is our school so effective because it is run by people who are monks or because it is run by people who are dedicated? To what extent is it our religious outlook that is responsible for the success of the school? Could many or all aspects of our program be successfully replicated by atheists who were passionately dedicated to the welfare of the kids?

I would love the get some comments from you, the readers of this blog, concerning this topic.


What would be different about our school if we were, like a public school, prohibited from referring to God? I recently described eighteen of our school's fundamental principles in several single-spaced pages without referring once to God. Here are the just four of the eighteen principles minus the practical examples I included in the original:

1. A school is a community of learners made up of students, teachers and staff, and not simply an organization composed of interchangeable parts.
The more connected a student feels to the school as a community the more he is willing to invest in his education. The school will foster a sense of “family,” linking the destinies of teachers and students through shared experiences and situations in which they begin to feel responsible for one another.

3.  Success is defined as much in terms of effort as it is of results.
Success in life is not judged by merely financial or material measures. The school emphasizes the importance of putting in effort, staying with a task and giving it your best. Mistakes are a normal part of living and need to be valued and used as learning experiences.

6. The school is like a ship composed entirely of working “crew;” there are no entitled “passengers” along for the ride.
Students will be responsible for such concerns as the cleanliness of the building and the maintaining of general order. They will play a meaningful role in the decision-making process at a variety of levels, especially via leadership roles in the everyday running of the school

7. Adults in the school will not do for students things the students can do for themselves.
Adolescents are capable of far more than they are usually given credit for. Therefore the school requires students to take leadership roles in certain tasks involved in running the school such as the maintaining of good order and the planning of school events. Adults must expect and accept that some ambiguity, inefficiency and mistakes are going to result from this arrangement.

These and the other principles we use are based on our convictions about what makes kids tick, and on common sense. To what extent are they also based on the Gospel? (Or maybe the difference lies in the monks' motivation? My work in the school is my way of obeying Jesus' command to love one another.)


Let me offer as a practical example something that happened to me the first week of school. I have a new sophomore in my class, a transfer from a local city high school. On the second day of school he came late and did not have his homework. So I very quietly suggested in an angry voice that he should just go back to the public school where he could do that for free, and stop wasting my time. I was really hard on him. Then that night I called him at home to ask if he was having any trouble with the homework, and asked him what bus he was going to take the next morning so he’d be on time.

My question to you is: Was my phone call prompted by my belief in the Gospel, or on the Rule of Benedict, or was it simply the action of a good teacher who sensed that this particular kid needed some extra support at the moment? The answer doesn’t matter to that student, all he knows is that his teacher called him at night to ask if he needed help with the homework and to remind him to take an earlier bus.

The incident raises lots of interesting questions that any of us Christians can ask ourselves. For example, “How different would my relations with others be if I were not a believing Christian?” “How many of my moral decisions are based on my belief in Jesus and his call to love?” “Would I be pretty much the same person I am even if I had never heard of Christ?”

Even if there’s no way to answer these questions with certainty I think they’re worth asking. So now I’ve started asking myself to what extent my actions and thoughts as a teacher or as a brother in community reflect my professed commitment to Jesus and his program that he calls “The Kingdom of God.”   

If you have an opinion on any of these ideas, please share it with the rest of us by leaving comment. 


  1. I believe that dedication is determined by the experience, or life, of the individual person, and by what each individual person experiences, or lives, based on who they are and where they are. Even though religious communities, and communities in general, are made up of several people, each individual still makes the community. The community does not have to make the individual. By saying does not have to, I mean that it is possible to conform to what the community does/wants, which is possible in any kind of life, either religious or nonreligious, public or private.

  2. Thank you for your request for comments on the subject of public and private schools, here are some of my personal thoughts::

    Let's ~ ~
    ~ not play the Devil's Advocate
    ~ not jump to conclusions
    ~ stop saying "when you get into the real world"
    ~ not assume anyone in public school is an atheist
    ~ assume everyone in religious school is a potential atheist
    ~ say better late than never
    ~ remember how much we rely on forgiving systems
    ~ realize that a failing student is still learning
    ~ remember sometimes strong attend public & weak need private
    ~ remember some children are home schooled
    ~ remember the best of us have bad days
    ~ thank God for wonderful teachers who leave the 99 to help that one

    They will know we are Christians by our love.


  3. The model of your school does work in the public sector. I work in a public school that is a wonderful, caring community of teachers, staff and students. Everyone cares about the welfare of the others. When two of our students lost their mother to breast cancer, the students, staff, and teachers worked to support that family raising money to help them in their time of need. I am fortunate to work in a school that others refer to as "teacher heaven." The kids are great, the families are great, and so are all of the people I work with. Many of the teachers are starting to send their own students here because it is such a special place. There is something about just having a dedicated and caring staff and student body. One of the teachers, who is an atheist, didn't hesitate to help his student look through the trash for two hours to find a retainer that his parents would have a hard time replacing financially. Love can come in the secular community. I see it and live it every day at my wonderful school! Success, dedication and love can exist even without a religious structure. I am fortunate to work at such a school, and I hope that my own children will attend this same school when they are in 7th grade.

  4. In my humble life experience, the overall Catholic educational experience provided by today's lay faculty is vastly different than the experience provided by the all-religious faculty of times past. The nuns who taught me as I grew up were totally devoted to the school because that is basically all they did since they didn't have a family life away from the parish -- they taught, they ran after-school programs, they led the children's choir, and they mentored troubled students, including one brother of mine who was definitely headed for physical, moral, and spiritual disaster. This brother eventually graduated from MIT and lives successfully today as a testament to the prayers and perseverance of those nuns.

    Fast forward to today in my own parish school with an all-lay faculty. When my own son (an A and B student) became a real handful in seventh grade, the principal and a teacher told me they didn't have time to deal with his disruptive behavior because they had families and lives outside of school. My son was expelled. He outwardly acted as though this was a personal triumph; privately he wept, confused and rejected by the school family that he had known since pre-school. He became incorrigible. His grades plummeted immediately, he dropped out of public school after weeks of truancy, and we almost lost him to the streets.

    Would the story have ended this way if the school had worked with me rather than opting for the easy way out and washing their hands of a problem child? Or if the principal didn't have to rush home after school to watch her recorded soaps? (That's what she told me. No lie!) We'll never know, will we? One thing I DO know, which is the saddest thing of all: neither my son (who is now 25) nor my husband have set foot on the school or church property since the expulsion so many years ago.

    I realize that Catholic schools are changing with the times, and such changes include all- or mostly-lay teachers and principals. However, I can't help comparing the dedicated nuns of my elementary school who refused to give up on my brother with the lay faculty of my present parish school who didn't have time for my son.