with 8th Graders
I keep an eye on St. Francis…all of the time; walking, running, dog walking, driving by -- all of the time. “Why is that?” I wondered as I was keeping that eye. My self-reflective process rendered a possible answer: I “own” a piece of the school; I’m one of the parents who invests in it, using not just tuition fees but our children as capital. When I state that our kids are part of the “capital”, I mean human capital, the key component. The education, the school, the spirituality, the staff are all pretty amazing at St. Francis, but it’s the kids that make it what it is. Its that initially unformed resource that St. Francis helps to shape and flourish. The students are the unknown variable that the school counts on to make it what it is.
It is this thought process that led me to bring an idea to the school administrators. We get testimonials from parents, teachers, priests, community members, but what about the kids? So I embarked on a venture to interview all 18 eighth grade students to get their thoughts about their school -- a place that some had been part of almost their entire life. The results were eye opening, enlightening, surprising, heartening. Here is some of what I learned.
If I say the school is about the students, the students say St. Francis is all about the teachers. Each of the 18 mentioned the influence of one or more teachers. Words like support, challenge, encourage, experiential were used more than once. One eighth grader summed it up by saying the teachers “are just good people.” One comment that stood out to me was “all of our teachers are always there,” meaning if a student has concerns or problems, it’s not just their current teacher(s) they can go to; they can seek out any of the teachers they have had over the years. Finally, one student said, “It’s obvious that the teachers really want to be here.”
The other common theme in the interviews was “community.” Every aspect of the community was emphasized. Some said that the school is like a big family and that classmates are like siblings. Others mentioned the small classes foster a better community; each class becoming a community within the larger. One student said that he has learned how to be socially active within the community; that he has “learned how to learn and learned how to learn from my mistakes.” These students feel St. Francis is a place where people take care of each other. One mentioned that unlike other schools, there were no “herds” (cliques), that the community was small enough in each class that they were essentially one big herd. This sentiment was evident when they spoke about the Church Buddy program. They all said as a younger buddy they got the feeling that they were being cared for and as an older buddy they had a responsibility to care, and they liked both experiences.
A number of students mentioned the religious aspects of the school when they spoke about what makes St. Francis unique. The words Catholic, religious, prayer, the ability to pray, church on site, faith, Mass, Monsignor Lavalley and Fr. Gratton were all regularly mentioned as part of what they found special here. My sense is that they realize that regardless of where they are on their individual paths to God, they each knew that the main pillar of the school’s goodness comes from its Catholic foundation.
When I asked what they would show/tell a parent if they were giving a tour, I got a myriad of interesting responses: “I’d tell them that it’s a good investment,” said one. “I’d point out how the younger kids look up to the older kids and the older kids take care of the younger kids,” said another. “I would make sure that the parents went into the classroom [of the grade their child would be entering] while it was going on,” said another, pointing out that that’s where the good stuff happens.
The other very interesting thing that came up time and time again during the tour question and throughout the interviews was “recess.” These 8th graders must have had the opportunity to speak to their peers from other schools, because most of them seemed to know that the concept of recess was unique, a mostly bygone academic tradition. Left on its own, it may have been merely an interesting tidbit, trivial if you will, but I was struck by their insight into WHY recess was important. Almost all recognized that school can be stressful, challenging, especially as they entered middle school. But time and time again I heard how critical it was to have the opportunity to relax and blow off steam, to have fun. For some it was the balance of fun (recess) mixed with the challenge of school work that made the St. Francis experience such a positive one.
Lastly, I asked a very selfish question: “I have a third grader. What advice would you give him as he continues his journey at St. Francis?”:
Take advantage of your time, it goes fast.
Do your homework, it makes a difference.
Don’t fool around too much.
Play sports, it’s a bonding experience.
Don’t forget about the small things,
the day to day experiences that we
sometimes take for granted.
It gets harder as you get older but it’s ok,
it’s worth it; don’t get too stressed.
Ask for help, it’s there.
The principal is on your side.
It was an honor to speak to these children -- really, now young adults. Eighth grade can be a tough time, and to be honest some were wary of being interviewed. But in the end I am hoping they learned something -- I know I did. I learned that my initial assumptions were correct; that St. Francis is an amazingly unique place; that the staff is committed to contributing towards not just the formulation of a good student, but creating a foundation for the creation of good citizens, ones who recognize the importance of community and their role in it. And the school’s success at doing just that substantiates my initial point: In the end the school is about the kids. They are the best part. My time with the 8th graders proved it.