Curriculum, Rigor, and “College Prep”
With nine academic departments and more than 90 course offerings, St. Michael’s offers a rich, college preparatory curriculum with many opportunities for students to excel.
But, what does “college preparatory curriculum” mean, anyway? What about rigor? A parent could ask 10 different schools and receive 10 different answers about the terms rigor and college prep. At St. Michael’s, we believe each term is interconnected, but differentiated specifically with regard to execution and strategy. Simply put, how a student experiences “rigor” or “college prep” at St. Michael’s could be much different than if they were to attend a different school in Santa Fe.
Let’s start with “college preparatory.” Most would say that a college preparatory school is a type of high school or secondary school, public or private, that strives to prepare students for academics in higher education. What this general definition lacks is defining what type of “higher education” we are referring to.
At St. Michael’s, the term “college preparatory” means much more than just academic preparation. First, our goal is to prepare students to attend and succeed at four-year colleges and universities across the nation. Some of our students attend community colleges, which is acceptable, but we push and expect our students to attend four-year colleges and universities in the semester immediately following their last semester of high school. This is how we interpret the term “college” in the phrase “college preparatory.”
Next, we believe academic preparation is only part of the preparation a student must prepare for before going to college. Students need to be prepared in other ways, outside of academics, such as how to deal with failure, prudent time management, social and emotional preparation, and preparing students for a college atmosphere that may challenge them spiritually and morally. These are all factors we take seriously with the term “preparation” in the phrase “college preparatory.” A firm, yet indiscrete example of our unique approach to “college prep” is our cell phone policy. Essentially, we do not have a strict or firm one. Why? Because many colleges and universities do not have one either. When students get to college, they must be able to self-regulate their cell phone usage. College administrators are not posted at every building entrance telling you to put your phone away “or else”—students must do it themselves. We model that atmosphere at St. Michael’s so it’s not a foreign feeling to them in college. This may seem minor, but as they say, “the devil is in the details.” This is a detail that we think matters.
Another example of our unique approach to “college prep” is our school’s emphasis on writing. Be it math, English, science, or history—students are asked to write across every academic department, not just the English department. This is done to prepare students for a college environment inundated with essays, papers, and research assignments in every academic discipline. St. Michael’s students frequently, and we mean frequently, return to our campus and reiterate how grateful they are for the strong emphasis on writing, citing that many of their peers in college are overloaded with the amount of writing because their high school did not prepare them adequately. Our graduates, on the other hand, seem to be unphased by the workload. Many alumni come back and tell us, “St. Mike’s was harder than my first year of college.” We are proud of that feedback and believe those comments are the true test of being a “college preparatory” school, beyond test scores or college pedigree. We strive to prepare our students at a level that makes their first-year semester of college feel like a review. The second semester should be a little more challenging, and years two and three of college should be academically and personally uncomfortable. We make concerted and intentional efforts for our students to know how to handle and navigate that discomfort because they’ve already felt it as a 14- or 15-year-old at St. Michael’s High School.
On to rigor. What is “rigor,” really? Most would say that the term “rigor” is an academic buzzword that describes how hard or demanding a school is to its students. Many schools would professionally and respectfully debate that the term “rigor” refers to how much work is assigned, or how difficult that work is, or how much of the academic work piles up simultaneously. Made simple, rigor usually measures the breadth and depth of coursework. The more breadth and the more depth happening simultaneously, the more “rigorous” a school is believed to be. We don’t disagree, but we have our own take on the term “rigor.”
At St. Michael’s, the term “rigor” absolutely refers to breadth and depth of academic study; however, we extend that breadth and depth to the heart and soul as well, not just the mind. From the day our 7th graders step on campus, they are confronted with high expectations and experiences in the classroom that challenge them intellectually. But, we also challenge their hearts from day one, to examine why they are learning, what they are learning, and to see the big picture (God’s big picture). For example, in our theology classes our students often organize coat drives or canned food drives. But, instead of asking our students to run a food drive to feed the hungry and homeless, we challenge them to think about how to end homelessness, or what causes hunger insecurity and starvation and how could you prevent it from happening in the first place? When our students are completing their service-learning requirements in their junior and senior years, is their heart in the service site? Are they invested in the success of the organization? It’s not just about accumulating service hours, it’s about developing service-minded human beings. This is an example of rigor at St. Michael’s that reaches beyond the mind and the classroom but touches the heart and soul as well.
Another example of St. Michael’s approach to rigor is evidenced in our school retreat programming. Students walk through a series of retreats every year that challenge them about their spiritual journeys, their personal relationships with God, how they interact and serve each other as classmates, and what their role and place is within their family units. These deep, personal inquiries into themselves are very rigorous for students who think coming to school is just all about getting good grades. It’s not. School is about learning, and much of the “rigor” that St. Michael’s prides itself on doesn’t come from a textbook, it comes from teaching the heart, not just the head.
To quote Ian Malcolm in the movie Jurassic Park, “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.” At St. Michael’s, rigor is about more than academic study: It’s about moral and ethical rigor as well.
What is “curriculum?” Again, most educational professionals will agree on the term in broad brushstrokes: Curriculum refers to the academic content taught in school. Going a step further, curriculum can be more specifically defined as what subjects kids are being exposed to in school and what topics within those subjects are prioritized. For example, a typical class sequence for a subject like math might be pre-algebra, algebra, algebra 2, geometry, and finish with trigonometry and maybe calculus for an advanced student. So what? Don’t all schools have to abide by the same rules? Absolutely not!
There are a general set of requirements schools must ask of their students, but the amount of flexibility a school has to meet, and then exceed, those requirements is often where you find the difference between great, and, well, not-so-great schools. At St. Michael’s, we require students to complete 28 credits of coursework to graduate. At other, private and public schools the requirement often stops at 24 credits. Simply put, St. Michael’s graduates receive a better education because they are required to complete more coursework than other schools in specific areas that we feel are important to developing well-educated and well-rounded students who are prepared for college and beyond. Of course, we believe in the age-old adage of “quality over quantity,” but in realistic terms, our students take more classes in areas that we feel are more important, and they are physically in school for more days and more contact minutes than any other school in Santa Fe. To use a simple, and likely controversial metaphor, would you want a doctor operating on you who had only been in school for 33 weeks and taking any classes they wanted, or a doctor who had been in school for 36 weeks taking very focused classes related to their craft? Again, this is a controversial metaphor, but not necessarily an inaccurate one.