GLT Reporter Honored For TV Report On School Run By Monks | WGLT

GLT Reporter Honored For TV Report On School Run By Monks

Aug 19, 2016

Teaching personal responsibility is one of the goals of St. Benedict's Preparatory School.
Credit Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly

GLT correspondent and producer Judy Valente was recently honored for her journalism by the national Association for Women in Communications.

Valente received a Clarion Award in public affairs reporting for a segment she reported on "Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly," a religion news show on national PBS-TV.

The report focused on St. Benedict's Preparatory School for boys in Newark, New Jersey. The school was born out of the strife of the 1967 riots in that city, and is run by a group of Benedictine monks who have gained success with unconventional teaching methods.

The school sends 95 percent of its students to college, though most come from troubled inner city neighborhoods. It's secret: St. Benedict's is run more like a monastery than a high school.

In addition to academics, the school stresses personal responsibility, the value of community and other principles, such as listening and hospitality, found in an ancient guide for monastic living known as "The Rule of St. Benedict."

After Valente's report aired on PBS, St. Benedict's was featured in an edition of "60 Minutes" on CBS, reported by anchor Scott Pelley.

St. Benedict's is also the subject of a documentary called, "The Rule" which has appeared on many PBS stations.  Some education experts at Columbia University in New York are examining ways that the teaching methods used by the monks of St. Benedict's can be applied to other schools.  

Valente spent several years specializing in religion reporting before joining GLT Radio in 2013, and still  contributes occasional features to "Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly" on PBS.

Here is her report:

Newark, New Jersey is a city struggling to overcome a host of problems.

"We’re talking about a 32 percent poverty rate, third highest in homicides in the nation, high unemployment, low academic performance from the high schools. So we’re looking at a city that is in great need and is suffering," said Marylou Bongiorno, a Newark-based filmmaker.

Bongiorno is was working on a series of documentaries about her hometown when she discovered a unique place in Newark’s inner city: St. Benedict’s Preparatory School, led by a group of 13 Benedictine monks. With a student body that is 80 percent African American and Latino, the school has a near perfect graduation rate. Ninety-five percent of last year’s senior class went on to college.

The secret to its success? St. Benedict’s operates more like a monastery than a school. The main subject taught here is community.

"You see signs all around the place, 'Whatever Hurts My Brother Hurts Me,' so to try to get kids to understand that, to live that. That’s the great sense of living in a monastery," said the school's headmaster, Father Edwin Leahy.

St. Benedict’s is the school that almost wasn’t. It was originally established in 1848 to educate the descendants of upwardly mobile Italian, Polish, Slovak, and Irish Catholics. The riots of 1967 drove many white students from the school. With enrollment dwindling, St. Benedict’s closed for a year. A third of the monks left to live in another monastery, but a core remained behind, determined to revive this school.

"We’re here as a sign of God’s presence, of faith. That’s kind of who we are as monks. We take a vow of stability of place, so even though the neighborhoods change around us on a regular basis, we stay." Leahy said.

An all-school community meeting that includes prayer begins each school day at St. Benedict's Preparatory School.
Credit Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly

It’s 9:15 a.m. Time for the entire school community to gather for the daily convocation, what the students refer to as “convo.” Color-coordinated sweat shirts identify the different classes.

Student leaders report the day’s attendance, discuss upcoming activities. Everyone has a chance to say what’s on his mind. And, in the centuries-old tradition of monasteries, they sing a hymn, then pray “lauds,” or morning prayer.

St. Benedict’s has 13 buildings, an Olympic-size pool, two gyms, and a large theater for student-led productions. But few who attend can afford to pay the annual $12,500 tuition.

The school must raise about six million dollars each year through alumni donations, and grants from corporations, foundations and area financial institutions.

Violence occurs daily in the neighborhoods where many of these students live. But at St. Benedict’s, there are no security monitors or even locks on lockers. The emphasis is on personal responsibility.

"So many times in schools they’re run so heavily from the top down. I don’t believe that’s helpful to kids, especially young men of color, because so much of their life they feel they have no control over," Leahy said.

Father Edwin Leahy, a Benedictine monk, is St. Benedict's headmaster.

Much of the school’s philosophy is based on the 1600-year-old guide to monastic living, “The Rule of St. Benedict.”

"In terms of silence and in terms of relationship with God and community and forgiveness, there is a lot in there that resonates with them." said Father Augustine Curley, who teaches a class on "The Rule."

"I think it’s always amazing when they finally look at the Rule and they say, 'Oh, that’s why we do that here," he said.

For instance, students who commit serious infractions, in most cases, are not suspended or expelled. Taking a page directly out of St. Benedict’s "Rule," they are “excommunicated” for a time from the school community.

"You’re trying to get them to reflect on their inappropriate behavior within the context of community, so you take them out of the community," Leahy said.

When Jaheer Jones, an otherwise stellar student, got into an uncharacteristic fight with another student, Leahy required him to assist at Mass on Saturday nights and participate in a Bible study.

Like most of the 536 students here, Jones is not Catholic. He’s a Pentecostal Protestant. His mother, Selma Daniels, said she welcomes the emphasis on Catholic monastic practices.

"The relationships that the monks have with the students, I do like the way they talk to them," Daniels said. "I like the way they treat them, I like the way that they give them a sense of community and a sense, really, of hope."

Muqka Poole was impressed by a cousin who attended St. Benedict’s and then went on to college.

"Going to college isn’t something I’m used to or my family is used to. So when I heard this I was surprised. He told me, 'Muqka, you gotta go there. You gotta go to St. Benedict’s Prep. This is the school you got to go to,'" Poole said.

Poole has been accepted by St. John’s University in Minnesota. He is one of the 60 students who live on campus in a building next to the monastery.

"My neighborhood is unsafe and dangerous. If I wasn’t living here, to tell you the truth, I’d probably be here at 11:30 at night anyway," he said.

There is also a strong emphasis on counseling, which takes place daily, as if it were a core subject.

"None of us likes to look at ourselves when things are difficult," counselor Ivan Lamourt began the conversation at one group counseling session.

Ivan Lamourt, right, gestures to students during one of the daily counseling sessions held at the school.
Credit Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly

One of the counseling groups is called “Unknown Sons.” Its members are boys who never knew or have little contact with their dads.

"I’m here because I don’t know anything about my biological father," one student confided to the group.

"I’m here because I don’t talk to my dad at all," another said.

Lamourt said it is often difficult for the teens to open up. Many students tell him, 'I’m here because I’m hurting so bad on the inside, but I can’t show you, because I’m a man.'" Sometimes that hurt expresses itself through violence, he said.

"What we’ve discovered is a lot of what manifests itself outwardly as poor academic performance has very little if anything to do with cognition," Leahy said. "I mean, it has to do with emotional distress that a young man’s going through, so that they begin to turn that anger in on themselves and little by little destroy themselves."

St. Benedict’s can’t always protect its students from outside influences.

Tyrone Heggins was a student leader who went on to the University of Delaware. But just six weeks before his college graduation, he said, "I participated in an armed robbery with three other students which led to my incarceration for three years."

Heggins served his time, and a court has since expunged his criminal record. He now works for a corporation where he’s been placed on a management track. He returns to St. Benedict's whenever he can to mentor students.

Teachers College at New York’s Columbia University is considering writing a study guide that uses St. Benedict’s as a model for urban education. Leahy said he’s asked all the time if the school's methods can be replicated elsewhere.

"I think two things are essential. Whoever is the head of the school needs to live there. It needs to be open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. And in order to do that you’ve got to, it seems to me you have to have some kind of community present."

Benedictine monks of Newark Abbey at prayer.
Credit Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly

As with most American monasteries, few monks have joined Newark Abbey in recent years. There is some concern about what will happen to the school if the monastic community doesn’t grow.

Additionally, the school faces the daunting task of raising six million dollars a year to subsidize its tuition. Father Leahy said he doesn’t spend too much time worrying.

"All I can hear is the voice of the Lord to Moses, 'Go forward. Don’t stop, and a way will open.'"

Leahy said, in the end, it’s all about teaching these young men that their lives have meaning.

"Who am I? What am I here for?" Now when you talk to a teenager about that, they look at you, they roll their eyes. So you teach so that they have something to refer to when these questions [later in life] begin to well up in their hearts about the meaning of life, the meaning of their life, their life in the face of death. What does it all mean?"

GLT's Judy Valente won a Clarion Award from the Association for Women in Communications for her TV report on St. Benedict's.
Credit GLT Radio

Buongiorno, the filmmaker, is now working with her husband on a fictionalized feature about St. Benedict's. The working title is, "Monks in the Hood."

Leahy said as long as there is even a single monk left, St. Benedict’s will continue to carry out its mission in "the 'hood,"