If you’re a regular viewer of the CBS show 60 Minutes, you probably caught the remarkable story last Sunday of a prep school in Newark, New Jersey. St. Benedict’s is a private school that enrolls boys from grades seven through twelve from a wide demographic but with a common thread – most come from underprivileged backgrounds and are susceptible to the dangers that come with it.
Yet, ninety-eight percent stick with it and graduate; most go to college and do well, with nearly ninety percent earning a college degree.
How do they do it? There are many aspects of St. Benedict’s that are unlike conventional schools:
- Most of the school is actually run by the students, not dictated by a faculty; the faculty is there to facilitate the education the students desire and plan for themselves.
- Students elect their own leaders, who are responsible for curriculum and ensuring the success of their fellow students.
- Students organize themselves into subgroups; each subgroup is responsible for enforcing attendance and with helping each other learn and succeed. Subgroups compete against each other academically as well as at play.
- School spirit is extraordinarily high; each morning starts with a schoolwide assembly where teambuilding takes place and the school motto is repeated.
- Students have a tremendous sense of responsibility, not just to themselves but to each other. The feeling is that if one boy fails, they all have failed him, and that everyone loves and supports each other. If a student drops out, there is a sense that the others have failed in their responsibility toward him. All are brothers, and “what hurts my brother hurts me.”
- The headmaster describes the aim of the school as building character and preparing kids for life.
If any (or all) of this sounds like another familiar youth program that we know and love, it’s by design. Edwin Leahy, the headmaster, reinvented St. Benedict’s amid the race riots and white flight that afflicted Newark fifty years ago, using the Boy Scout handbook and program as a guidepost. The bullet points above are most certainly lifted straight out of what we as Scouts and Scouters do.
One of the hallmarks of Scouting is that it provides a safe place for boys to try new things and to fail constructively at them. The same applies at St. Benedict’s:
Scott Pelley: With the kids running their school I wonder how often do you have to get in front of a really bad decision?
Edwin Leahy: You hope you can sort them out afterwards.
Scott Pelley: Afterwards, you let them make a mistake?
Edwin Leahy: Yeah, because– yeah, that’s a better learning experience for them.
Scott Pelley: You know there are teachers and administrators watching this interview right now who are saying he is describing chaos.
Edwin Leahy: I guess.
Chaos properly describes a well-run Boy Scout troop too, as I’m sure you have experienced.
But it seems to me that there are many troops that don’t adhere to the Scouting program nearly as much as St. Benedict’s does. Many troops don’t let the youth have control; the adults find it more comforting to direct the program themselves, giving the youth minimal, if any, input, and paying lip service to the patrol method (if they even recognize it at all). And as much as St. Benedict’s looks less like a school than nearly every other school does, most troops look more like school than a Scout troop. They conduct “classes” in merit badges or have adults teach Scout skills and “do advancement requirements” – rather than doing the things Scouts are supposed to be doing and letting advancement happen – like a suntan in the outdoors, as Baden-Powell so saliently put it.
Go watch the excellent 60 Minutes package. Take a look at the 60 Minutes Overtime sidebar content. Then ask yourself: Is our troop as much a troop as this school is, or are we getting it all wrong?