Where Rigor—and Community—Helps Form Strong Young Men
In the midst of disheartening U.S. presidential campaign rhetoric, terrorist attacks all around the world, and domestic racial issues always on simmer or boiling over, I was encouraged and moved to happy tears recently. We were watching an episode of 60 Minutes showing a Catholic preparatory school in Newark, New Jersey, that is educating young men—black, brown, and white together—to be the best they can be. With amazing results.
They are taught and internalize that their lives have meaning, and students urge their brothers and friends to enroll.
I have not been able to watch 60 Minutes for years because of our very early-to-bed schedule. My father considered the show part of his sacred Sunday evening routine—a practice he followed almost as religiously as going to church Sunday morning. Now, I know 60 Minutes can overstep and skew stories and perhaps feel overly far left, but I feel it’s hard to critique a story this positive and uplifting.
The name of the school is St. Benedict’s Preparatory, with a student body of some 550, led by a group of 13 Benedictine monks who do much of the teaching and provide the structure and community that makes the school so strong.
Here is the church doing something right. This school has received perhaps more than its share of media attention (a segment on PBS’s Religion and Ethics, documentaries, and the recent stint on 60 Minutes). Here’s part of the reason, according to their website:
St. Benedict’s Prep . . . made up of 80 percent African American and Latino young males with a near-perfect graduation rate. Ninety-five percent of last year’s senior class went on to college. The secret to its success? St. Benedict’s operates more like a community than a school.
Academic life is rigorous. Sports teams are also successful. But community life—a value held dear by many Christians, is what makes St. Benedict’s different from just another private school. Signs like “Whatever hurts my brother hurts me” are seen around campus and, more importantly, are espoused by the student leaders who operate as co-leaders for the monks. The young men are taught to speak up about issues they’re experiencing in school or family, and they participate in daily group counseling classes. They talk about what it feels like to not even know your biological father and how, although it may not be cool to show emotions, how important it is to grapple with them. The students are taught and internalize that their lives have meaning, and they urge their brothers and friends to enroll. The monks and their alumni supporters make it possible for almost anyone—even without adequate funds—to attend if accepted. Few pay the annual $12,000 tuition. The school turns down many applicants each year for lack of space.
The school was founded in 1848 and served upwardly mobile folks (read: upper crust) for over a hundred years. It operated as a typical Catholic prep school until the 1960s—another era of great unrest. Because of a lack of students and urban blight, linked with the riots in Newark and other urban areas, the school closed in 1967. But a core of dedicated monks and determined alumni brought the school back into ministry, which now seeks to serve the immediate community in the impoverished area around the school. Part of the 60 Minutes segment that was particularly moving was the story of a practically homeless young man who walked into the school and asked a swim coach for help. The coach told him to come to school on Monday, which he did.
A strong and dedicated hand guides St. Benedict’s Prep as headmaster: Father Edwin Leahy began at the prep school when he was just 13, and he went on to graduate from nearby Seton Hall University in 1968, the year after St. Benedict’s closed. In response to questions about whether their academic success can be replicated elsewhere, Father Leahy notes, “Poor academic performance has very little to do with cognition.” So, yes. If the other issues in youths’ lives are taken care of and if they have strong supports, they can achieve academically. One longevity question for the school remains on the horizon as monks age. Some wonder, what will happen if they don’t get younger monks? Father Leahy doesn’t spend a lot of time worrying about that.
There is a daily convocation, with the kids wearing color-coordinated sweatshirts according to their year. Students have a chance to speak up about issues, sing a hymn, pray. Students don’t use locks on lockers and there are few problems with security; student leaders help the boys make decisions on group activities and rules. Most enrollees are not Catholic and may or may not belong to other Christian denominations.
My knowledge of and respect for Benedictine monks came through a book I edited in 2013–14, Living Thoughtfully, Dying Well. The author, Dr. Glen E. Miller had nothing but the highest praise for what he’d learned from Benedictine monks in several settings, especially at the Collegeville Institute in Minnesota. These fellow Christians do the work of Christ in the world through their labors in many fields. They are making a tremendous difference in the lives of young men—and broader society—through the efforts at St. Benedict’s Prep.
You can watch the complete CBS 60 Minutes segment online: http://www.cbsnews.com/news/60-minutes-preview-st-benedicts/.
For a free booklet especially for teens, write for “Making Good Choices in Tough Situations.” Write to MelodieD@MennoMedia.org or Another Way, 1251 Virginia Avenue, Harrisonburg, VA 22802.