Academics, Service and Faith 2

The Foundations of Skaggs Catholic Center Schools

A SOLID EDUCATIONAL FOUNDATION—Saint John the Baptist Middle School

It’s Friday night and Karen Smith is grading papers at Saint John the Baptist Middle School. Her students nicknamed her the “Fastest Grader in the West” and she’s living up to it.

“Kids’ job is school,” says the 8th-grade social studies teacher. “Their grades are what they earn. I want to pay them back as soon as possible.”

That “pay them back” approach is one that runs deeply in Smith’s outlook on Catholic education. She wanted to give back to Catholic education what it gave to her five children—an outstanding academic education and a life of faith and service.

The University of Texas alum began teaching after a career at IBM, but has never called teaching “a job.”

“It is a calling,” Smith says. “When these kids sit in my class, I see God in them and I tell them, ‘Don’t be less than what God wants you to be.’ I want them to reach their maximum potential.”

That means building on the Catholic teachings of “a better life on earth through solid academics.”

Smith does so by providing her students with a structured, multi-dimensional foundation on subject matter. For example, her U.S. history students study the subject through fiction, non-fiction, music, poetry and math.  Years later, students will tell her they breezed through advanced U.S. history courses, because she provided them with a solid foundation.

Academics flourish at the Skaggs Catholic Center schools, in part, because there is curriculum flexibility, which she believes leads to greater things.

“Because of the nature of Catholic schools, I am able to think outside the box,” she says, adding that the administration is open to new ideas. With that, she was able to add a consumer studies elective course to her offerings. She calls it “learning practical life skills.”

“It’s what you need to go to college without the academics”—an eclectic mix of nutrition, etiquette and budgeting round out the popular course.

For Smith and her colleagues, proficiency in academics is important, but their larger goal is to develop the whole child, one who is able to navigate successfully through life.

“I want my kids to go out and change the world,” Smith says, emphasizing that this can be achieved if students practice, work hard, think outside the box, and reach goals. “And I am going to help them get there.”

THE PATH OF SERVICE—Juan Diego Catholic High School

Spiritus Donorum. That’s the Latin motto of Juan Diego Catholic High School — the spirit of giving. But it’s more than a motto to place on a masthead or diploma. It’s a way of life: at school, in the home, and within the community at large.

Service is the grounding anchor at each of the Skaggs Catholic Center’s schools, including Juan Diego. Giving back starts in elementary and middle school and culminates with a 25-hour service project for high school seniors.

“There’s lots of intellectual discussions you can have about giving back,” says Dave Brunetti, Juan Diego’s director of campus life and architect of the newly implemented service project. “But you don’t really understand the concept until you’re working downtown (at the homeless shelter) and you are giving back.”

With that in mind, Brunetti developed a project, modeled after the Jesuit teaching, “Everything begins with service.”  Seniors volunteered at one of 27 local agencies—from assisted living centers to schools for severely disabled children—spending the first week of January out of the classroom, in service.

“I didn’t want the experience filtered,” says Brunetti, who told each agency that students weren’t there to do office work or chat with friends. Service meant interacting with people: taking veterans to a movie, talking baseball with a disabled child, or offering clothing to a homeless single mother. “The students came face to face with reality.”

The project proved a phenomenal success, says Brunetti, adding that, “the kids far exceeded our expectations.” Most came away grateful, humbled, and with a new attitude that service isn’t something they had to do, but wanted to do, because of the deep bonds and friendships they made with those they served, most notably at schools for disabled children.

“Kids are naturally drawn to service,” says Brunetti, but adds their busy lives often preclude opportunities to step outside themselves.

By tapping into and cultivating that natural desire to serve others, Brunetti says the school hopes students will continue on that path. It’s a lifetime journey of stepping away from the “me” mentality and engaging in hands-on service work, while upholding the Catholic principle that service is done with respect and dignity for all human life, regardless of differences.

“There should be no filter on how we look at people when we provide service to them,” Brunetti says.

A CLEAR VIEW ON FAITH—Josh Glenn, Student, Juan Diego Catholic 
High School

When Juan Diego Catholic High School senior Josh Glenn looks at school through the lens of faith, he has a clear vision.

“Faith is everywhere you look,” says Josh, a non-denominational Christian. “One of my favorite quotes about faith is: If you want to find God, don’t look up, look around you.”

And that’s what he does daily. He looks around at God’s creations, striving to treat them as God does—with love, compassion and understanding. And, he strives to be the person God wants him to be.

Josh has attended Skaggs Catholic Center schools since 3rd grade and is proud Juan Diego is deeply rooted in Catholic values. He enjoys starting the school day with prayer, and cites another favorite quote that motivates him: “The best way to lead is to serve.” At school, that means planning masses, working at an assisted living center for his senior service project, and organizing events, such as Kairos, a Catholic retreat program for seniors.

Serving doesn’t end at school, it plays a role at home, too, by simply asking what needs to be done around the house. “There’s no give and take or keeping track (at home),” he says. “The motto is: give more than you take.”

Faith follows him on the field as well. Since age three, baseball has been his love, influenced by his father who pitched minor league with the Philadelphia Phillies.  Josh and his teammates pray before each game. “You don’t have to (play the game) alone,” he says. Having God gives you “so much more confidence in your abilities.”

The Skaggs Catholic Center and Juan Diego are “outrageously different (from other schools) in so many wonderful ways,” he says. Everyone seeks to help one another, including his teachers. His teachers not only care about his classwork, but also are concerned about his academic career, his life, and how he lives that life.

The caring attitude extends to the student body, with upperclassmen making a point of being respectful towards underclassmen. And, there is little division between religion, too, adding that students of varying faiths attend.

“The school isn’t closed off to one particular religion,” says Josh. “To quote Jesus, ‘All are welcome at the table.’”