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All in the Family

by Erica Bauwens

There are plenty of reasons why local families opt for a private school education when considering their children’s future. Through every private school experience, however, one string threads everything together: family. Schools all over the area are dedicated to making the education experience a family affair, connecting students in ways that go well beyond the classroom. Our area private schools shared the foundations that go into building their campus families, including community, friendship, service and, of course, faith.

“When you’re in a private school, the concept of family is broader than just who you go home to,” says Kimberly Clarkson, the head of Moorestown Friends School’s middle school. “At a school like ours, they really have a family here that goes home with them to their family at night.”

“It is a really tight-knit community because we have such small classes,” continues Kelly Banik, the lower school director of Moorestown Friends. “We have lower, middle and high all on the same campus and it creates a very wonderful family feel. Being one campus provides us with the opportunity to get together.”

Private schools have a smaller class size, making the relationship with teachers and staff more personal. “There’s an attention that our teachers give to students that you don’t really get in a public school,” says Debra Williams, religion department chair and service coordinator at Holy Cross Academy, as well as an alumnae and mother of a current student. “We know all of our kids’ names. There’s an involvement, and an extension of the staff’s dedication as parents and family members.”

“Because St. Mary of the Lakes Catholic School [SML] is a smaller school, all involved truly get to know the students and their families,” says Nina Hoover, principal at the pre-k through eighth grade school. “This fosters a familial atmosphere whereby everyone is rooting for each other.”

Entering as a freshman is scary for any incoming student. Kathleen Stewart, director of admissions for Paul VI High School, says that the school takes specific measures to make new students feel at home. “When school begins, the freshmen have orientation and a special spirit day, led by our Paul VI Peer Leaders. … The first home football game is dedicated as the Freshman Welcome, with a cookout for the new students and their families. … The freshman retreat is usually held early in the school year, so the class has another chance to bond, in a special environment of faith.”

And while single-sex education is not as common as it once was, the single-sex experiences offered in South Jersey provide a comfortable community for growing teens. “I found that at first it seems like it will be a challenge, but they get over that so quickly, and they’re so grateful that they don’t have to worry about that part of the drama during a school day,” says Brook Coyle, head of Our Lady of Mercy Academy. “They can completely be themselves, focus on the task and not worry about the little things.”

Ask James Duff, interim high school administrator at The King’s Christian School, and he’ll tell you that the school day extends well beyond the final bell. “We refer to our school as a family, and as such, we provide many activities to get family members involved,” he says. Those activities include holiday celebrations in the community, special dances, field day and things like their annual Chili Cook-Off. “Parents are also invited to volunteer as room parents, field trip chaperones and various other opportunities. They attend athletic games and tournaments, musical performances, drama and art shows.”

With a broadened sense of community comes burgeoning friendships, in a comfortable and faith-based environment.

“When I first came to Our Lady of Mercy Academy (OLMA) I felt like I was home,” says Maddi Weick, a recent OLMA graduate.

OLMA’s sisterhood program matches each incoming freshman with a sister and a 10-girl family, to bond and connect with through the years. “From Day 1 the girls realize that they are part of a family,” explains Coyle. “They plan events with their families and we celebrate that with Sisterhood Days throughout the year. So they learn that sisterhood starts right now and is carried through for four years.”

“Everyone asked me my name, what year I was and welcomed me into the school with open arms,” says Weick. “My first day, I got a letter from my big sister welcoming me to the sisterhood and explaining her role as a mentor and friend.”

At Moorestown Friends, student connection extends through 12 years of education in their peer mentorship programs and volunteer groups for all ages. “We have upper students come and work with the lower school, and we also have an adopt-a-team program for the lower school,” says Banik. Lower school classrooms will adopt a varsity upper school team, then cheer them on through the season and even attend games. Meanwhile, the athletes will visit their classroom to talk about their sport. “Even if the older kids didn’t have their best season, they have fans; they have something to be proud of.”

Clarkson says these connections are particularly important in the middle school. “We’ll connect a middle school student who is going through a tough time with an upper school student,” she says. “We can think back to a student who went through that same tough period, and may be in 11th grade now that’s doing really well. We get them together to show them the other side of where they’ll be eventually.”

At St. Mary of the Lakes, all new students and their family are assigned a Buddy Family to help with the transition. “It is important for all new families to feel like they belong right from the start,” says Laura Campanaro, president of the PTA. “To this end all new families are assigned a ‘Buddy Family’ who they can ask questions and can help them navigate the transition.”

Private schools’ diverse international programs even help to build international friendships. “A number of international students attend The King’s Christian School (TKCS),” says Duff. “They live with host families, many of whom are current and alumni parents, [who] provide a loving environment for students adjusting to a completely new culture and language. While the international students are learning about American culture, their American classmates and host families are also learning about their cultures.”

Through all private schools, service is a vital part of education and remains one of the foundations of growth and development in faith-based learning.

“It’s all about helping our community. And that really is the gospel message,” says Holy Cross’ Williams. Holy Cross Academy requires a total completed number of service hours for each student, the number of which increases per year. “Our students go well beyond the required service hours. They work with Cathedral Kitchen, Toys for Tots, Habitat for Humanity and work with their own parishes. They’ll get so involved that it sticks with them. From there they find out more about themselves, and they find out more about their community.”

Service on campus remains one of the highlights of a student’s tenure at Moorestown Friends School. “In upper school, students can participate in a program called teachers aid,” says Banik. Upper school students will sacrifice their study halls to work with students in the lower and middle school. “These are not just kids who want to be teachers. They are students who love the school, love the faculty, and dreamed about doing this when they were in the lower school.”

“One of the most important ways that our students demonstrate service is through a Community Day of Service each spring,” says Hoover, of SML. “This is a day dedicated to service in which the entire student body participates in various service projects throughout the community. These projects range from making and delivering sandwiches to Cathedral Kitchen, to cleaning up local parks in the township, making cards for hospital bound children, to visiting seniors at a local assisted living.”

“Serving others is such a central reality to our student and family body that on occasion we need to convince a student or two that, yes, their work at the inner city playground is service,” says Clare McNamee, director of campus ministry for Paul VI. “[By] partnering with our students, with our families who model ‘love in action’ always, with our teachers, coaches, staff, with our church communities and our nonprofit organizations across South Jersey, we are confident that our students are now ready to set the world on fire as servant leaders in the next stage of their lives.”

“[TKCS] believes that we are living the life Jesus has called us to by serving and loving those around us. Service opportunities are an intricate part of our school family. One day each month, students go out and serve the community in various forms and functions,” says Duff. “This will influence their character, work ethic and relationships. It also prepares them to be servant leaders who can impact our world for Christ.”

“Being a faith-based school, there’s a freedom to discuss religion here that you legally can’t have in a public school setting, a freedom to ask questions and really discuss anything,” says Williams, who says that while Holy Cross is 80 percent Roman Catholic, they welcome all faiths.

That open connection to faith includes tackling tough questions. “Kids here are very eager to discuss and question their religion, and that is so authentic and great. There are real questions out there, and we discuss them, because that is how we gain a better knowledge of religion,” says Williams. “We don’t dodge the big questions, and we answer them with compassion.”

Moorestown Friends embraces their Quaker faith starting in pre-kindergarten. “One of the things I particularly enjoy is that the underlying principle is that there is God in everyone,” says Clarkson. “Especially in middle school, when students are going through such significant changes, having that idea that every single person has value and every person is important is such a critical thing to fall back on. We’re able to enforce that through our advisory program that focuses on emotional and physical well being.

“Students have meeting for worship once a week. They gather in mostly silent reflection, come together in community and just reflect. No one is telling them what to think or what to believe, it allows them to sit and focus on a particular topic. It’s something that families are invited to attend every week, so parents can sit and reflect with their children.”

“Since St. Mary of the Lakes is a Catholic School, the direct involvement with St. Mary that is unique to Catholic schools,” says PTA president Campagnaro. “The church/school connection is visible in the student run class masses.”

“Every morning, before the start of school, Mass is celebrated in our chapel,” says Stewart of Paul VI. “We are always so pleased to have parents attend—we even have parents who come to daily Mass.”

“As a Christian school dedicated to our faith, we’re about the human person and human dignity and our community,” concludes Williams. “With that comes all great things.”

Published (and copyrighted) in Suburban Family Magazine, Volume 7, Issue 7 (September, 2016).
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