Reaffirming Communities of Faith: How Three Boarding Schools Begin Their School Years

Subiaco Lenten procession from Church to main building

It strikes me that the opening of the school year at boarding schools, that are also communities of faith, includes building foundations for practices and lessons that run through their school years.

I spoke with Sylvia Dickenson (SD), communications director, French Camp Academy in French Camp Mississippi, Matt Stengel (MS), headmaster, Subiaco Academy, Subiaco, Arkansas, and William Taylor (WT), headmaster, Trinity-Pawling School, Pawling, New York, to ask each how the opening of school includes reaffirming communities of faith for church connected schools? What’s different about the opening of school at schools of faith? What foundations are being built for the coming year; and, how?

How does each of your schools- boarding schools that are also communities of faith- reassert, and reestablish, their faith and communities at the beginning of the school year?

Sylvia Dickenson(SD), French Camp Academy: From application to acceptance of each student, FCA sets out our spiritual emphasis front and center—that we are a Christ-centered home and school. Before the students arrive, all the staff members come together for a week of spiritual focus, community building, and service.

…House parents introduce home life with devotions and prayer with the students, setting the tone for the rest of the year.

The next two days are spent in student orientation. A time in God’s Word and prayer starts each day, followed by groups participating in relationship building activities and previewing classes. These days are filled with team building games, ropes course, climbing tower, and zip line for one group, while the other group gets familiar with teachers, classrooms, and courses. The next day they swap.

Wrap-up times interspersed throughout the days always point the students to Christ as Redeemer, Restorer of relationships, and Protector.

French Camp Academy Student Orientation

French Camp Academy Student Orientation

Matt Stengel (MS), Subiaco Academy: We try to first let people know ‘who we are’ all during the inquiry and admissions process. Also new students participant in a four day orientation process, part of which is information about the Benedictine values we work towards here, the Abbey, the monks, and other religious orientation. This is designed to simply acquaint students with the environment. Of course we have students who share our faith and those who don’t. These orientation sessions are really more geared to those who do not share our faith, to try and make them feel welcome.

The values we talk about- we try to relate to forming what we call a ‘Subi-man’. The student council picked that term to use as an acronym for the honor code values:

S – stability
U – understanding
B – brotherhood
I – integrity
M – moderation
A – accountability
N – nobility

Nobility is a bit of an oddity, since the word can have some negative connotations. What we mean is that if we practice all the other values, then we would have a ‘noble’ bearing. We would be ‘kings among men’.

Also, we start the year with senior ring day, which takes place in the context of Mass. And, throughout the year we have weekly assemblies, where faith, values and character are reiterated with the student body.

William Taylor (WT), Trinity-Pawling School: Trinity-Pawling School is a community of students and teachers who share mutuality and a commitment to holistic growth. As an Episcopal school, Trinity-Pawling believes that every human being is a child of God, each possessing distinctive gifts and talents given to them by a loving God.

As a faith-based school community, the first official gathering of the school is our opening chapel service. It is important that this is how the school year begins, with worship and recognition that the process of learning, the process of becoming, is a sacred one. As such, we begin the school year with this recognition and the opportunity to give thanks to God for the opportunity we have as a community to share this journey of learning and growth together.

T-P Headmaster Bill Taylor 2015

T-P Headmaster Bill Taylor 2015

What foundations, or starting points, are you trying to establish as a school community, and in each individual, to open the year?

SD: Hopefully, the students see that we care about them and their spiritual, academic, physical and social growth. Staff members consciously make themselves approachable and available to develop Christ-centered relationships that will bring out the best in each student.

MS: As a community I think it is important to start with the ‘why’ questions. Why are we here? Why Subiaco Academy? From the faculty and staff perspective, we are here to serve the students and help them grow into true manhood with the virtues that used to imply like judiciousness, humility, integrity, courage, and intellectual curiosity. For the students we try to start with simple foundations like order and cleanliness. Cleanliness of their person and their room; proceeding to correctly ordering their day and priorities around prayer, academic work, and even time for play and relaxation.

WT: The foundation of the Trinity-Pawling learning experience is that every boy has within him the potential for greatness. This potential exists because he is a child of God, the recipient of distinctive gifts and talents bestowed by a loving God. It is incumbent upon the teachers and the School as a whole to help each boy recognize their distinctive gifts and talents so that they can be celebrated, nurtured, and strengthened.

The School, furthermore, believes that human reason and intellect are also gifts from God. As such, Trinity-Pawling embraces a vigorous, college preparatory academic environment grounded in inquiry, projects, and experiential learning as a means to honor this gift. Because the School believes that its community is strengthened by its diversity, Trinity-Pawling welcomes students of all faith backgrounds and traditions. The school community gathers four mornings a week for chapel, an opportunity for worship, reflection, and fellowship.

And, then are these foundations part of curriculum for the coming academic year, or are the explorations of faith more fluid with events and individual explorations leading the way?

MS: There are some themes we may hit on through the year, but the explorations of faith are mostly fluid. We have yearly spiritual retreats for each class and we take a ‘pilgrimage’ each year as a school body. But the faith should be expressed daily in the classroom, in the dorms, and through our community events, where we try to start everything with prayer. This year we will be reviewing some of the virtues expressed in our honor code, which will provide a thematic approach, but other things will be addressed as the need arises.

SD: Our curriculum includes Bible classes for each grade level. Additionally we bring our seniors into Christian Worldview and Christian Family Living classes that make a dynamic impact on them and give them a foundation for the challenges they will meet when they leave FCA. Much time is spent individually and corporately with students to give them the tools they need for successful living. We mix formal teaching with informal, but the real basis for FCA’s ministry is relationship building, growth, and maintenance.

WT: The Trinity-Pawling experience is centered on the idea that the learning journey is sacred because it unlocks the God-given potential that exists in every student. Boys wear jackets and ties to class as a means to reflect the respect that should be afforded their academic journey. The community gathers for worship and for family-style dinners four days a week to demonstrate that this journey of growth and discovery is as much a communal experience as it is an individual one. Judeo-Christian values such as love, honor, mutuality, and reconciliation are woven throughout the teaching and learning experience at Trinity-Pawling.

One of the School’s most distinctive attributes is its signatory Effort System, which began 45 years ago. Each boy at Trinity-Pawling is recognized and assessed in terms of the effort he devotes to a given endeavor: academics, athletics, dormitory responsibilities, civic engagement, attendance, and extracurricular programs. The learning
objective inherent in this ethos of effort is to teach young people that the more they invest of themselves the greater their rewards can be. The Effort System, then, becomes a pervasive characteristic of a boy’s experience at Trinity-Pawling. Inherently, though, the focus on effort at Trinity-Pawling is grounded in the belief that each student is a child of God who possesses gifts and talents that can be revealed, nurtured, and strengthened through effort and application. Biblically, it has its foundation in the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25: 14-28).

Brian Fisher

A product of both private and public education, Brian Fisher served as a teacher, coach, dorm parent, and administrator at three different boarding schools. Brian also fills the role of Director of Development at Wolfeboro, The Summer Boarding School, in NH along with being a partner at AdmissionsQuest.

More by Brian Fisher

Subscribe for email updates: