Education Opinion

Great Expectations, Successful Schools

By Gilbert T. Sewall — February 29, 1984 10 min read

Overlooking the rotted downtown of Newark is St. Benedict’s, a complex of red brick school buildings surrounding a 115-year-old monastery. St. Benedict’s is an effective urban school for poor black and Hispanic teen-age boys. The school produces exceptional results, breaking for many of its students the vicious cycle of poverty into which they were born. True, it is a private school, and more innovative than most, but it provides a useful example for all open-minded educational planners.

St. Benedict’s is not a fancy school. Its physical plant is clean, if rundown. The maintenance budget is overtaxed. The 350 boys in grades 7 through 12 are selected for motivation and ability, but few of them are gifted. Most students pay a large or full portion of St. Benedict’s $1,250 tuition, many by working during the summer. All seniors take the Scholastic Aptitude Test. (Median scores in 1982 were 350 for the verbal section and 380 for math, well below the national average, and reflecting the student body’s uneven capabilities. Individual scores range from about 200 to 600 in both areas.) In 1982, the colleges to which St. Benedict’s sent its graduates included Swarthmore, Dartmouth, Rutgers, and Holy Cross. Other graduating seniors entered community colleges, became apprentices in skilled trades, or went into the armed forces.

The hub of St. Benedict’s is Newark Abbey, separated from the school only by heavy oak double doors. The monastery is a pleasant place, full of dark 19th-century wood moldings, overstuffed chairs, stained glass, and murals depicting the glories of Christianity. On the roof of one class building the monks keep four working beehives, and bees are the school’s symbol. Assisting the monks is the authoritative tradition of the 1,500-year-old Benedictine order, which, the fathers will tell anyone, has survived in and adapted to centuries as uncertain as the present one.

How to trigger and sustain the motivation of minority students is the faculty’s primary concern. “Many talented black kids make a point of avoiding thought,” says Father Edwin, the blunt and charismatic principal. “They have played the jive role so long that their minds have atrophied.” Over the last eight years, the fathers have altered their attitudes toward black students. “We used to be more accepting,” says one. “We felt sorry for our students, so we didn’t expect very much from them.” Now the faculty is more firm. “A kid will come in and tell me he’s deprived,” says Father Edwin. “I’ll say back, ‘You haven’t seen your father in 10 years. You can stay paralyzed if you want or you can face the facts.’ Ten years ago, I would have been crying along with the kid.”

Above all, the school insists on good manners and restrained behavior. Noise and rowdiness are not tolerated. Even between classes, when any school corridor erupts in confusion, the halls feel safe. Students do not shove one another or jostle adults. Nowhere is there any trace of graffiti. The atmosphere of St. Benedict’s is calm and energetic.

Academic demands are high. In one class, an 11th grader reads from Gulliver’s Travels while Father Philip shows how a Houyhnhnm might walk. Down the hall, Jack Dalton, a lay history teacher and basketball coach, walks around class in a gray tweed jacket. Suddenly, he stops and asks one student why he doesn’t know a word that was used in last night’s assignment. “You must learn to use a dictionary,” he cautions. “You must try to fall in love with words to appreciate their many shades of meaning.” Upstairs, Father Edwin’s voice filters from biology class into the corridor. “Okay, those are the different kinds of compound leaves,” he says. “Does everybody understand?”

Sturdy moral principles, evident in school codes and organization, are reinforced in the classroom. Every student (most of the black pupils are Baptists) takes a four-year sequence of religion. Eleventh graders, for instance, learn ethics from Father Luke. In a soft, patient voice, he explains the meaning of conscience. To a roomful of students, who display an ordinary range of teen-age classroom moods, he analyzes the word crisply and intelligently. “There is more to any issue than the law,” he concludes. Later in the year, Father Luke will give this section inspiriting classes in courage, honesty, and prudence.

From September to April, St. Benedict’s runs a rugged but conventional academic regimen. To graduate, a student must take four years each of English, social studies, religion, and physical education. The school also requires three years of mathematics (including computer science) and one year of laboratory science. Electives include Latin and economics. Classes average 20 students in size. But technically the school operates 11 months each year, beginning in July with a mandatory six-week summer school of remedial and enrichment courses. “It keeps students busy during the summer months, when they need to keep up academically, and when most of them don’t have anything worthwhile to do,” explains Father Edwin.

For 80 freshmen, the summer session is especially taxing. Every 9th grader is required to arrive at St. Benedict’s with a sleeping bag on the first day for a live-in introduction to the school. This week-long initiation lasts from 6:30 A.M. to 10:30 P.M. each day. Students are forbidden to telephone their parents. Meanwhile, they are drilled in school history and traditions and are required to write essays on what they hope to achieve in the future, do calisthenics, and serve each other meals. These exercises disarm suspicious or undisciplined youngsters, forcing them to participate immediately in the group spirit of the school. By the third day, the students typically have learned the names of all their classmates.

Freshmen continue to observe special rituals through the year, such as carrying a notebook at all times and walking on the proper side of the hall. Then, in May, while upperclassmen spend five weeks off campus doing projects such as children’s theater and urban field studies, they take a 42-mile backpacking trip along the entire New Jersey section of the Appalachian Trail. For three weeks, through physical exercises, map-reading assignments, and short walks, the freshmen prepare for the outing. The trip itself takes one week. There is, interestingly, a close correlation between those who fail the trip and those who ultimately fail in their studies. The emphasis on building character through fraternal striving may explain why coeducation is not a pressing matter to the faculty or students.

Strenuous athletic and extracurricular activity is encouraged. “Someone who has difficulty with math or reading can try to get by, by keeping quiet,” Father Edwin told a Congressional subcommittee on education in 1980. “On a track, on a court, on a wrestling mat, or on a stage, there’s no place to hide. The demands are rapid, intense, clear, and the results are right away.”

Nonacademic life at the school revolves around the so-called Group System, which affords every student ample attention and at the same time a voice in school operations. The student body is divided into 14 cooperatives, each named for an illustrious teacher or alumnus. A month after school begins, group leaders meet in strict secrecy. Using a draft system, with last year’s least successful group having first choice, they pick all boys of the freshman class. From then on, in a decentralized setting, the student group and two faculty advisers work together daily, paying special attention to those members who are struggling. Most discipline is left to the group leaders, who meet regularly with the headmaster. In addition, the groups compete with one another, getting points for academic excellence, high attendance rates, athletic achievement, and school service.

The central point here is not St. Benedict’s “privateness” or even its somewhat irregular program. More important, as even a cursory description of the school makes clear, is the fact that St. Benedict’s is by any measure an effective school, effective because it has the freedom to establish and enforce what a scholarly and sincere faculty believes to be exemplary standards, procedures, and customs. Any parent or child who enters St. Benedict’s is expected to abide within reason by its stated standards--and thereby they willingly cede some individual power. (Significantly, the threat of expulsion, though it is rarely acted on, gives St. Benedict’s a means of controlling those who flagrantly disrespect those standards.) Through all of this, St. Benedict’s has the authority to make itself a superior school.

The success of urban private schools like St. Benedict’s depends a great deal on positive family values vis a vis education and willingness to sacrifice for it. It is doubtful that such attitudes can be made universal or, in the lower class, even conventional. Perhaps school reformers should be content to remember the University of Chicago sociologist James S. Coleman’s counsel to look for ways to make public schools more like private ones. And this depends on the increased presence of school-level administrators with sufficient academic interest and authority to copy traits such as those already in place at St. Benedict’s:

  • An Academic Curriculum. At St. Benedict’s, all students receive a full course of study in the basic subjects. No effort is made to dilute course material to meet the putative “special” needs of disadvantaged pupils.
  • Firm Rules. The principal and teachers exude care for the impoverished and deprived, but by word and manner they make it clear that they and their vocation are to be respected. No student unnerves or intimidates them. A clear hierarchy exists between adults and children. All students are expected to treat adults as models and superiors. In return, faculty members regard their charges as gentlemen apprentices and treat them accordingly.
  • High Expectations. Parents and students, on one side, perceive St. Benedict’s as a conduit to a better future. On the other side, the faculty is firmly convinced that its students can achieve academic and vocational levels commensurate with or superior to those of the Irish, Italian, and Slavic teenagers who attended the school a generation ago. Competition is encouraged. Exacting standards of obedience, courtesy, and honesty prevail.
  • Peer Support. During the early and continuing initiation into the school’s curriculum and code of conduct, each student is assisted by fellow students who have mastered the school’s standards and who help younger boys succeed. As a result, no student remains isolated in his endeavors. Older students are proud of themselves. They challenge younger boys to match their achievements.
  • Manageable Size. The small size of St. Benedict’s tends to create a tight-knit central administration able to monitor students on an individual basis. Students having academic or emotional difficulties cannot remain anonymous. And because of the small size, each pupil has a high likelihood of achieving some extra-curricular distinction.
  • American education’s most profound inequality at present is unequal pupil access to high cognitive and behavioral standards. And many educators and jurists, in trying to be the redeemers of every child, have come to defend a common-school system that sets accepted standards of learning and virtue at the lowest, most abject possible standards. In districts that serve the professional and managerial elites, the common-school denominator may remain quite high solely on account of community tastes. But in most districts that service the lower class the denominator falls toward zero. Schools like St. Benedict’s inadvertently threaten, illuminating by contrast how much lower-class youth can achieve, given the opportunity.

    School improvement does not require acts of God. It requires, instead, that parents and professionals affirm new kinds of common rights. Of whatever race, background, or ability, all children should have the right to attend schools that impose meaningful (and color-blind) standards designed to push them toward their maximum potential. These standards must prevail over more specific--often self-declared--rights of aggrieved groups and antisocial individuals. In most districts, happily, this means only that schools must be less tolerant of careless, lazy, selfish children (who are often said to be “acting out” obscure psychological problems). In troubled cities, schools like St. Benedict’s offer obvious models of quality for public schools, models that do not require white or ecclesiastical leadership. Everywhere, reform depends on educators who have the nerve and legal right to set high goals for all students, including the disadvantaged. The question of the 1980’s is whether or not educational leaders will decide to take up this challenge.

    A version of this article appeared in the February 29, 1984 edition of Education Week as Great Expectations, Successful Schools