By G. Jeffrey MacDonald
In North Philadelphia’s poverty-stricken Allegheny West neighborhood, where nearly half of all children never finish high school, those who attend the three-year-old St. James School are easy to spot. They’re the children who wear crisp crimson blazers as they stride past boarded up homes on their way to middle school. On weekends, they’re the ones leading garbage cleanup projects in the streets.
These aren’t well-off kids. All 46 come from families earning no more than $22,000 a year; some earn as little as $4,000. They attend school tuition-free, with help from hundreds of donors. And they bear the fruits of a particular strain of Episcopal education, one that’s aggressively tapping insights from the 19th-century Church School movement and its focus on character formation to meet 21st-century challenges.
“The Episcopal Church had to do something to address the achievement gap in Philadelphia,” said David Kasievich, head of school. “If we can instill a sense of virtue now during adolescence, the hope and prayer is that that will fold over into high school and college and life.”
The Church School movement, which traces roots to education visionary William Augustus Muhlenberg and his protégés, laid philosophical foundations for some of America’s best-known prep schools, including St. James School in Hagerstown, Maryland, St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire, and Groton School in Massachusetts.
The movement’s core emphasis on character formation fell largely out of favor in the 1960s and ’70s, when daily virtue-shaping requirements came to be seen as too rigid for the times. But some educators, at least in pockets of the Episcopal school landscape, are reviving it today.
St. James School in Philadelphia offers an especially robust example. Located on a former parish site that reverted to diocesan control in 2006 after a bitter court battle, St. James has a wholly African-American student body that practices Anglo-Catholic worship every day.
Students eat meals at assigned tables, where adults oversee polite conversation. Fellow students make sure no one talks with a full mouth. When students speak in street slang, they’re asked to “code switch, please.”
At St. James, good deeds are recorded in a designated box and read aloud once a week. Cultivating virtue comes first, Kasievich said, because it’s key to becoming a productive contributor to society. In situations of conflict or other adversity, said Kasievich, virtue helps students “make good decisions for themselves and their families.”
St. James is not alone. Schools with longer histories are attending to spiritual formation in fresh ways, too. St. John’s School in Houston, which has Episcopal roots but no official church ties, this year began highlighting one character trait as a monthly theme in lower-school worship services. In 2009, St. John’s created a new “faith and virtue” position for an instructor of religion who would also oversee campus worship.
“As society’s needs have changed and evolved — as the school has grown in complexity, size, and diversity — now more than ever we need a single person to be focused on this important topic,” said Mark Desjardins, head of school at St. John’s.
Down the road in San Antonio, Texas Military Institute (The Episcopal School of Texas) completed its first purpose-built chapel building in 2008. Since then, the community has gathered daily to recite the Lord’s Prayer, hear Scripture read aloud, and listen to a homily. About 75 times a year, the preacher is a TMI student.
Observers say these schools reflect Muhlenberg’s philosophy of understanding the school as an expression of the Church. The end goal of Church School education is virtuous character. Academic achievement is valued, but not as an end in itself. Scholastic success is only a means to the higher end of molding a person of godly character.
Efforts to apply Muhlenberg’s tenets and practices stand in contrast to some dominant trends in Episcopal schools in the past 50 years. Many institutions have backed off hall- marks of the Church School program, such as six-form education (grades 7 through 12) and daily chapel attendance. Attempts to be inclusive have sometimes resulted in watering down programs intended to shape people of strong faith and moral virtue, according to the Rev. Chip Prehn, head of school at Trinity School of Midland (Texas).
“The vast majority of Episcopal educators, especially at our older and more famous schools, have kind of given up a deep commitment to orthodox Christianity in favor of teaching, you know, good morality, good ethics, and inclusivity,” Prehn said.
Reclaiming character formation as the chief end of education is as urgent as ever, in Prehn’s view. Yet many top schools have displaced virtue by placing a higher, paramount premium on academic achievement and admission to prestigious colleges. This results too often in attitudes of entitlement rather than humility, and desires to serve oneself rather than God and neighbor.
There’s also a social injustice done, say modern-day Church School proponents, when schools let academic success become an idol. Schools end up catering primarily if not exclusively to high-achieving children of the wealthy.
“Muhlenberg had a social commitment that the school should be the Church’s outreach into the world, and it’s not just for children of the rich,” said the Rev. Stuart Dunnan, headmaster of St. James in Hagerstown. “But successful people want the kind of college placement for their children that will mean that they will be ‘successful.’ So it’s very difficult for a school founded in the ethos of this movement to remain faithful to it.”
These days, projects to recover Muhlenberg’s priorities and methods reach beyond individual campuses. Since 2012, educators inspired by the Church School movement have gathered annually at St. James in Hagerstown. They’ll meet again June 6-8 to share research, perspectives, and encouragement. That’s important, organizers say, since some feel their colleagues do not share their passion.
Conference participants “go back to their respective schools greatly encouraged that there is a wider fellowship of like-minded educators who share their loyalty to the Church foundation,” Dunnan said. “Often in their own schools, they’re feeling a bit under attack or isolated.”
To make character the top goal does not diminish or discount academics, Church School proponents say. Plenty of graduates still go on to top schools. But a principled school takes no shame in sending students to lesser-known schools that fit well. Such a school exists to educate children of varying abilities because it’s an expression of the Church, which has room for all.
Student experiences are qualitatively distinct at institutions where the Church School ethos is a point of living pride. At St. James in Hagerstown, for example, top prizes are awarded not for academic achievement but for “devotion to duty” and “willingness to serve.” Students can be expelled not only for cheating or abusing substances, but also for lying. One girl, caught lying for a second time, was expelled when she refused to admit she had skipped a class.
The school’s honor council members “were left with the problem of a girl who just won’t give up a lie,” Dunnan said. Those who repeatedly lie and will not fess up, he said, “can’t be in this community.”
Or consider a lesson learned by an eighth-grade girls soccer team last fall at St. John’s in Houston. They won a big statewide game — or so they thought. When the coach discovered the team had too many players on the field at the time of the game-winning goal, he forfeited. It was a hard lesson for a disappointed team, but the girls were treated as exemplars. All were asked to stand and be acknowledged at a recent all-school chapel.
The team “could have just not said anything, but that’s not how we are,” said Courtney Burger, communications director at St. John’s. “Chapel is a great opportunity for us to be reaffirming those values.”
At schools where retaining the Church School ethos is a priority, campus life adheres to certain contours that shape lives over time. At Trinity, students are in chapel every day from 9:36 to 10:02. No one is forced to pray or sing, and some do neither, but it’s required nonetheless for all students, regardless of their religious backgrounds.
Some in Episcopal school circles worry, Dunnan said, that too much faith and spiritual formation in school life could scare away prospective students and their parents. But at St. James in Hagerstown, robust faith is no deterrent for non-Episcopalians. It’s actually the preferred school for Pakistani Muslims in the area.
“They view us as having a stronger value system and more emphasis on morality, frankly, in a positive sense, than other schools with our sort of SATs and college placement,” Dunnan said. “It gives us a distinct niche that bespeaks a purposeful mission and safer environment that parents want for their children.”
The proof will be in the results for those reviving core features of the Church School movement in the 21st century. Do enough families value the approach to sustain the efforts?
Practitioners insist they do. Kasievich notes that families in North Philadelphia want St. James to offer worship more often, including a weekly service on Sundays. The school is fast approaching its capacity enrollment and has 600 benefactors, who are confident Muhlenberg’s wisdom has more fruit yet to yield.
Muhlenberg’s insight “was spot-on with all children, no matter what background they come from,” Kasievich said. “All adolescence comes with some baggage that can get in the way of a successful academic career. But, like Muhlenberg said, if you don’t get the character piece down and the virtue piece down, you’re not going to be successful with the academics either.”
G. Jeffrey MacDonald is a freelance journalist and author of Thieves in the Temple: The Christian Church and the Selling of the American Soul (Basic Books, 2010).
Image: Choir practice is held at St. James School and Saint Mark’s Church in Center City Philadelphia. Choristers sing at the 9 a.m. Eucharist at Saint Mark’s Church each Sunday and on special feast days. • Al Cassidy photo