There is no doubt that it takes a village to raise a child. And when the child is a middle schooler who is living in the midst of a pandemic, the village becomes even more important. With a heart toward cura personalis, The Welsh Academy has been hard at work to assemble a village of professionals who will help their young students grow mentally, spiritually, and emotionally, and this project is taking on even more importance during the school’s fourth year of existence.
The Welsh Academy has always focused on the goal of educating the whole person, subscribing to the tenets of cura personalis, Latin for “care of the whole person.” Founding principal Mary Ann Vogel, Ed.D. says, “We’ve always known this is part of what we do. Our mission, our pedagogical framework has always called us to do this.” But within the past three years as the school came into existence, the faculty and staff have been busy creating curriculum as they welcomed a new class of students into the school each year. “In year four, with nothing new from scratch, we can build deeper teaching and kids get deeper learning,” Vogel says.
About 18 months ago, the school started to pull together a team of outside experts to assist them in educating the young male adolescents, extending their name to the Welsh Academy as a Center for Cura Personalis for Middle School Boys and their Families.
Both the name and the mission are grand, but the program seeks to use best practices to understand the age-appropriate needs of middle school boys to ensure that they are ready to learn. A grant from the Connor Family Foundation in March 2022 allowed the school to dig a little deeper, paving the way for growth in the direction of the school’s mission.
The Welsh Academy has always been grounded in good research. According to Dr. Karen Nestor, a current Saint Ignatius High School Board of Regents member and early Welsh Academy advocate, “Everything done there is solidly rooted in best practices for middle school students.”
And with these best practices in mind, the Welsh Academy has reached out to Lisa Damour, Ph.D., author and psychologist, to help the school focus their efforts. As an advisor to enhance the emotional support of students, she created a round table with various experts in the area to begin the discussion about what the Welsh Academy is already doing, and what they want to be doing, in order to create a safe and supportive learning environment for all.
“It’s impossible to learn without feeling safe and centered. Many middle school Welsh students are coming from circumstances that warrant and deserve feeling safe and centered,” Damour says. She adds that all people can benefit from developing the vocabulary to talk about their feelings, especially middle school students.
In addition to Damour, the Welsh Academy is working with consulting psychologist Dr. Sarah Spannagel to help them understand how the adolescent brain works, so that the faculty and staff can learn how to best lead the students to make good decisions.
Spannagel says, “An adolescent brain is an extraordinary thing. While it is ‘fully grown,’ it is not ‘fully mature.’ That can be challenging for the adolescent, the parent and the teacher. That said, for everyone to have that knowledge of brain development can be a powerful thing. Because it is a ripe time of maturation, everyone can have a positive impact on the learning, adapting and healthy risk-taking that occurs during this time.”
This understanding is invaluable in finding tangible ways to help the boys. Vogel knows that students’ lives are not always easy. “If a kid is hurting and the school doesn’t know, they are in an emotionally vulnerable place. If they face adversity without protective factors, they are more likely to get into trouble,” Vogel says.
In order to create an environment that works with the students’ best interests in mind, the teachers and staff are all undergoing more professional development. By utilizing the SMARTS Program, The Responsive Classroom, and PBL Works, the staff and teachers are building a dynamic community in which all of the middle school boys will feel safe and happy to learn.
“We face big things in our lives. We have layers of safety nets. We are trying to build those things into the ways we work,” Vogel says. And by using the tenets of cura personalis with the boys, understanding their academic, spiritual, social-emotional, and mental health needs, the boys are able to get the help that they require for true learning to take place.
The goal of the Welsh Academy is simply to create young Men for Others, and to prepare the boys for high school. This new push to educate the whole person will give students the chance to understand the choices they make, will offer them solutions for how to deal with hurt and will also educate families on how best to help their sons.
“We are all doing it together. We are open to doing this. But we can’t do it all at once,” Vogel says. She acknowledges that though the process is in its early stages, the intentional work of meeting students where they are is already paying off.
There is more progress to be made. “The dough is still rising,” she says. And with a full team of compassionate professionals, the young adolescents at the Welsh Academy as a Center for Cura Personalis for Middle School Boys and their Families have everything to gain.