student leadership

How a Faith in Action Program Grew Student Leadership

By Teresa Roberts, Teacher Saint John School, Encinitas

Forming the Catholic leaders of tomorrow can be a formidable task. How can a school capture not just students’ attention, but also their hearts, and nurture the seed of their baptismal call to missionary discipleship?

This question had long been on the minds of the staff at Saint John School in Encinitas. Our administrators were considering the possibility of offering a social justice class, but that, in itself, did not seem to be the complete answer. Then, during the spring of 2014, quite a few of my colleagues serendipitously ended up at the same session at the L.A. Religious Education Congress. The session featured Dan Friedt, a principal from Edmonton, Canada, who discussed the impact of a leadership program that transformed his school’s entire culture and deepened its Catholic identity.

We had been increasingly concerned about our affluent school’s self-focus that seemed to be resulting in increasing behavior issues. This Canadian school’s overall plan – which built on The Leader in Me program based on Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People – sounded like a promising remedy.

Deepening Catholic Education and Curriculum

Thus, our investigation began into whether we should follow suit. I visited a local school that used this program and was greatly impressed by the students’ leadership skills. We went so far as to price out this program, and yet it seemed that Catholics already had everything it would take with Scripture and Church teachings.

Why pay such a high price and adopt a new vocabulary to speak about leadership when our faith could supply everything we needed to achieve the same goal? Why use a secular program and spend a lot of money when God and the Church have provided us with every resource and example necessary?

Indeed, this was an opportunity to reinforce, supplement, and deepen religious education, helping students to make the connection between faith and action. I volunteered to create a schoolwide Faith in Action program, including a middle school curriculum based on the Works of Mercy, the Beatitudes, and Catholic Social Teaching.”.

Role Reversal, Student Ownership in Service Projects

We learned at the conference how important it was to stoke the fires of student servant leadership, and we realized we needed to completely change our model of outreach in which adults came up with ideas for service projects and asked students to help. We knew it would be essential to place the responsibility for service in the hands of the students, and, if they needed extra help, they could ask adults to assist them. This role reversal, and the fact that we carved out time within the school day to do much of this service, has made all the difference in student growth and buy-in, and it has helped everyone on campus to become more inspired to participate in the service projects that arise throughout the school year.

Building Student Leadership and School Community

As part of the Faith in Action program, we also decided to bring back a program we had about a decade earlier called Faith Families. Every eighth grader becomes the head of a “family,” named after a saint and comprised of 12-14 students from every grade level from kindergarten to eighth grade. Each month, the eighth graders gather with their families and teach a lesson about the year’s theme (the Works of Mercy, the Beatitudes, or Catholic Social Teaching). They also sit together at Mass, Rosary, and most all-school liturgical events and periodically meet on social or service occasions. This not only increased student leadership skills but also more closely united the school community.

The seventh and eighth grade Faith in Action students also visit each classroom every Wednesday morning to announce service projects and opportunities and to pray for the world’s needs. From the very start, our school community has wholeheartedly embraced the Faith in Action program. The kids grow tremendously from the student leadership opportunities; the staff and parents love to support the students’ efforts; and the larger community is inspired by the enthusiastic commitment of such relatively young students. Talk about widespread evangelization!

The program is structured so that everyone in the school community is encouraged to pitch in, from kindergartners to fifth graders taking on an annual service project and running a lemonade stand to middle schoolers conceiving and carrying out their own service projects. Through all the feedback we have received, as well as our own observations, we are convinced that this program has played a significant role in our becoming a more spiritual, compassionate, service-oriented school with a firm grasp of what it means to follow in Christ’s footsteps as servant leaders. Students graduate from Saint John School owning the fact that they are truly ambassadors of Christ, called to be good stewards of God’s creation.

For more instructional ideas about Catholic education, read ‘Teaching And Assessing Dispositions In Catholic Curriculum’!

A former Jesuit Volunteer and lifelong social justice advocate, Teresa Roberts has taught a wide variety of middle school subjects at Saint John School in Encinitas for the past 14 years. She was assigned to get a Faith in Action middle school curriculum and schoolwide program up and running four years ago. She has an M.A. in theology from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley and has been a catechist for 25 years. She worked as a development editor for St. Mary’s Press, a reporter for The Catholic Voice in Oakland, and a free-lance writer for numerous publications, including the National Catholic Reporter Religious News Service, Today’s Catholic Teacher, and the Association for Middle Level Education.

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