May 7, 2020

Wasting Time Together: St. Benedict’s Prep, Newark, NJ

By Transcend

Before The Crisis

45 years ago, Fr. Mark Payne developed a concept for schooling that was immediately adopted by St. Benedict’s Prep. His concept was that the most important thing that students and faculty could do in the day was to “waste time together.” This concept led to the development of critical practices in the everyday operation of the school including:

  • Unstructured time built into the daily schedule for students and faculty/staff getting together.
  • Student leadership is essential to our operation and students are included in operational decisions about the school and the daily schedule.
  • Students have put their leadership into practice in ways that have real consequences for themselves and others.
  • Students have a responsibility for each other and each other’s successes and failures in the classroom, in the athletic/activity spaces, and in the hallways.
  • Every student and faculty member is assigned to a small group in which their unique talents can be recognized and showcased.
  • Educating the heart is stressed as much as educating the mind. As such, a fully-staffed counseling department has been developed and nearly 40% of students participate in individual or group counseling.
  • The entire community gathers each day to sing, appreciate one another, and spread positivity, and discuss community business.
  • Alumni, and families, feel just as welcome in the building as they did when they were students.
  • Developing community as a main focus of our mission.
Dr. Ivan Lamourt, Psy.D. holds an informal chat with students in his office. (Photo Credit: Mike Scanlan)
The Senior Group Leader at St. Benedict’s signals for quiet during the morning convocation at St. Benedict’s Prep (Source: Mike Scanlan)
The Senior Group Leader at St. Benedict’s signals for quiet during the morning convocation at St. Benedict’s Prep (Source: Mike Scanlan)
Students and faculty at St. Benedict’s Prep gather together each morning to pray, sing, take attendance, make announcements, and uplift one another. (Photo Credit: Mike Scanlan)

During the Crisis

 When we announced our move to remote learning on March 13th, aside the typical school decisions of synchronous vs. asynchronous learning, which platform(s) to use, and how to keep learning moving forward, at St. Benedict’s we spent a significant amount of time working on how to maintain our strong community when we couldn’t all be together. The essential question was, how do we continue to “waste time together?” Some of the practices that we’ve put into place include:

Image 5: The YouTube feed of students and adults together on Zoom for convocation. During convocation alumni and guests announce themselves in the chat. One recent convocation had over 90 alumni watching live and received more than 5800 views on YouTube.
  1. Virtual Convocation. On Monday, March 16th, we launched our first virtual convocation via Zoom and YouTube. We account for attendance of students and faculty by having them log into their “group’s” (similar to an advisory) Google Meet to watch and participate in convocation live there. Despite the initial intentions of consistency for our students and faculty, the interest that this convocation has received from the larger community has been overwhelming. Ever increasing numbers of alumni, parents, supporters, and friends tune in live (or watch the recording) to the YouTube feed each day. This virtual convocation allows for an injectection of some positivity into the day through upbeat singing, prayer, announcements, and even a bit of levity – both on screen and in the live chat. Sen. Corey Booker made a guest appearance at a recent convocation. 
  2. Counseling. All of our traditional counseling groups and individualized counseling have continued online. Typically our counseling office offers group counseling sessions for:
    • Anger management 
    • Unknown sons (we’re an all-boys high school) – for students with a strained or no physical or emotional attachment to their fathers, 
    • Depression
    • AlateenAll of these groups continue to meet online and are open to all. Additionally, counselors have continued to provide individual counseling to students who were already having regular sessions, and have started counseling with students who have requested it since the move to remote learning.
  3. Leadership. Our student leaders remain as engaged as ever in making sure that the students are “in school” and participating in decisions about the school. Student leaders have an active role in the morning convocation. Student committees are currently working on:
    • Graduation and end of year celebrations
    • New student orientation for next the 2020-2021 school year
    • Reopening, hybrid, or continued remote learning plans for 2020-2021 if social distancing and/or remote learning are still being enforced
    • The leadership structure for next year
  4. Wasting Time Together. Most faculty members offer office hours during the week. Office hours are essentially “open-doors” for students and/or faculty to hang out with one another – with no specific agenda. In addition, students and faculty members have found ways to keep connected without being together. Here are some examples:
    • Virtual office lunches: One administrator has continued to have office “lunches” virtually. Most of the students and faculty members who typically crowd her office in the building to eat lunch and spend time enjoying each other’s company, continue to do so online each class day.
    • Groups (similar to advisories): Group is the period of the typical school day that is specifically designated to waste time together. This is continuing online.
    • Bring your pet to class day: One faculty member hosted a ‘bring your pet to class day’ during which students introduced their pets to the rest of the class.
    • Tuesdays with Cass: I have introduced a weekly discussion about issues related to current events, social justice, or life in general called “Tuesdays with Cass” open to all faculty and students.
A recent “Tuesdays with Cass” event discussing the legacy of historical racial injustice.

The importance of community in our lives has never been more evident than our current situation. As school administrators, we have the opportunity now to think about how to reinvent our schools to focus on community, as much as we focus on the curriculum, pacing guides, and test preparation. As we all develop our reopening plans, let us embrace opportunities to waste time together in order to bring about stronger communities in our schools and society.

Glenn Cassidy, Ed.D. is currently the Executive Director of the Vox Institute at St. Benedict’s Preparatory school which brings the best practices and learnings of St. Benedict’s to other schools and organizations in an effort to help them strengthen their opportunities for student leadership, community development, and overall achievement. Over the last 26 years, he has worked with students in the inner city of Newark, New Jersey spending most of this time working with students who come from challenging backgrounds and teaching students how to be effective leaders. 

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