Finishing Strong
Students hunger for the skills needed to become leaders, risk takers, and agents of change once they complete high school.
by Bill Donahue

Vince Tarducci recalls being a young man making decisions about where to go to high school. He chose Roman Catholic High School in Philadelphia because he and his parents thought the school’s academic rigor would prepare him for the demands of college. He was right, but he also discovered something else at Roman Catholic that would prove just as valuable, both in college and later in life: a culture designed to foster adaptability, assuredness, and independence.

“From the moment you put on the purple sweater, there’s a responsibility that comes with it,” says Tarducci, class of 2002, who now serves as the school’s principal. “Most of our students are traveling miles to get here, and there’s a great sense of pride that goes into wearing that uniform.

“The school has grown tremendously since I graduated,” he continues. “We’re always looking to build the next bridge. Parents make sacrifices to send their sons here, so these students deserve a great four years and success afterwards. What we have to offer is unique; I think you enter Roman Catholic as a young boy, and you leave as a man ready for the world.”

No Place to Hide
As Tarducci’s experience suggests, students and their parents choose private high schools in search of academic preparedness, to improve their chances of getting into the college or university of their choice and then thriving once they get there. In the Greater Philadelphia Area, students find not only top-notch academics but also communities designed to foster key intangibles such as leadership, resiliency, and grit.

“Knowledge needs to be gained, but I hope [our students] are learning to love learning; it’s more about lighting the fire than filling the bucket,” says Lisa Plog Carey, director of studies at Sacred Heart Academy Bryn Mawr, an all-girls K through 12 school on the Main Line. “As they learn and absorb their teachers’ enthusiasm, they’re going to come out with certain skill sets. We may be a college preparatory school, but we also want our girls to have the skills they will need to use beyond college.”

This includes opportunities to lead their peers. At Sacred Heart Academy, Carey says it’s important for students to see fellow females essentially filling every possible leadership position.

“Every girl is leading something, whether it’s a service project, running the newspaper, working on the yearbook, or participating in athletics,” Carey says. “They even began a group called Courageous Conversations, which is essentially helping them to have difficult conversations, about complex moral issues like socioeconomics, race, or what’s going on in the country. It’s a safe place to sort things through, and they have the ability to learn from their peers, who may or may not agree with them. It also helps them become comfortable with who they are.”

From Carey’s perspective, high school is a time for exploring new roles, making mistakes along the way, and then reflecting on what went well and what didn’t. While each Sacred Heart Academy student gains access to the tools she will need to excel, the school’s adult leaders are careful to emphasize the need for balance.

“Girls are not typically taught to put themselves first,” Carey says. “That’s why we think it’s important to have them taking wellness classes so they can talk about things like nutrition, healthy eating, exercise, social media, friendships, college pressure and how to handle it, mindfulness, choices, and goal setting. We also want them to have fun and let themselves be kids. When we talk about making connections, it usually has to do with seriousness and thinking about the future, but there can also be connections made when girls have 30 minutes of free time to just sit in a corner and giggle with friends.”

Today’s high students are preparing to enter a world that has grown both increasingly small and extraordinarily complex. That’s why Abington Friends School in Montgomery County puts students “in the driver’s seat in every situation,” says AFS Head of School Rich Nourie.

“We know it’s a changed world, and that’s where we start—looking at the world that students are growing up in and going out into,” Nourie adds. “It’s more diverse, it’s more interdependent, it’s more global, and there are unprecedented challenges facing us. Most important of all, it’s an uncertain world.”

AFS teaches students a number of vital skills, including the ability to maximize the resources around them; the importance of using diversity as a tool for challenging their assumptions and overcoming biases; and using time and space to reflect on their experiences as a way to gain perspective. At its heart, the AFS community is “intensely social” and “highly verbal,” which Nourie considers essential to a student’s development.

“It used to be that technology lived in school and not at home,” he adds. “Now computers are in kids’ pockets and under their pillows, so we need to create an intensely social environment where students can express themselves clearly, collaborate, and challenge each other’s thinking. Technology obviously is important, but the classroom is also about putting those things away and focusing on each other.

“You can’t hide here,” he continues. “Our students come to feel the sense that they are relied upon, and that they are needed here. It’s also a place where students learn how to resolve conflict. … Quaker schools tend to be high in conflict, because Quakerism is an invitation to engagement. We argue, we collaborate, and we want these kids to have the skills needed to lead in an emotionally charged space.”

Ready to Lead
Roman Catholic High School’s students hail from 90 different ZIP codes. In some cases, a student may be the only one from his elementary school who goes to Roman Catholic. In other words, the experience of traveling to and from the school is an exercise in self-sufficiency.

“When I graduated from Roman and went to college at La Salle, some of the students I met there looked lost,” Tarducci says. “By then, I already knew how to use public transportation and how to navigate an urban campus. Roman teaches academics, but it also teaches you how to be independent and confident.”

Besides autonomy, Roman Catholic students learn lessons in becoming strong and talented young men who are connected to the communities to which they belong. It could be through a community service project, by leading fellow students on an athletic or mock trial team, or mentoring underclassmen through the school’s Big Brothers program.

“Our slogan is ‘All Roads Lead to Roman,’” Tarducci says. “Everybody’s journey is different, but all our students have one thing in common: They’re here because they want to be here.”

Likewise, students go to Valley Forge Military Academy and College because they and their parents seek a specific kind of experience. From the very beginning, new students, or “plebes,” must endure a month-long trial of programmed adversity that combines student orientation with military basic training. Their goal: to earn the right to be called cadets.  

“That’s where the determination and grit come in,” says Maj. Gen. (RET) Walt Lord, president of VFMAC. “Getting through that first month requires a beautiful combination of individual resilience and self-discipline to gut it out. [Plebes] also learn to come together as a team to get through it—banding together and building resilience and loyalty to each other. We don’t typically call each other classmates. Plebe brothers is a common term on the Valley Forge vocabulary, and plebe sisters now that we also have female cadets.”

After a plebe earns cadet status, he or she falls into the routine of day-to-day cadet life, which Lord refers to as “a continues drumbeat of structure and discipline.” The drumbeat follows cadets beyond the classroom, to include required participation in some kind of athletic or intramural activity, as well as regular chapel services that Lord describes as “about character development as much as they are about faith.” In addition, VFMAC offers a plethora of clubs and activities, as well as weekend pursuits such as obstacle courses and paintball.

“At the end of the day we’re a school, so the academic work is the principal piece,” says Lord, who is a VFMAC alumnus. “We do require cadets to be disciplined, and we also expect them and enable them to apply the leadership skills they’ve learned here. We’re a cadet-led corps, so you could have a high school junior serving the role of company commander, under the supervision of adult leaders. … When they leave campus, they are ready to go out into the world and lead.”

In fact, Lord says he often recites a quote from a fellow VFMAC alum—Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf—that also speaks to his own experience at the school: “West Point prepared me for the army. Valley Forge prepared me for life.”

Ready to Thrive
When it comes to rigorous academics, top-tier athletics, and other intangibles that prepare students for life after high school, the Greater Philadelphia Area offers an abundance of exceptional educational options. Each of the following private schools has created an experience to educate the whole student, helping him or her to thrive at the university level and find a path to success once he or she is ready to enter the working world.
Archbishop Wood High School
Conwell-Egan Catholic High School
The George School   
Holy Ghost Preparatory School
Solebury School              
Villa Joseph Marie High School
Bishop Shanahan High School          
Delaware Valley Friends School
Devon Preparatory School
Kimberton Waldorf School
Malvern Preparatory School
The Phelps School
Villa Maria Academy High School
Westtown School
Academy of Notre Dame de Namur
Archbishop John Carroll High School
Bonner Prendergast Catholic High School
Delaware County Christian School
Sacred Heart Academy Bryn Mawr
The Shipley School
Valley Forge Military Academy & College
Abington Friends School
Academy of the New Church
AIM Academy
The Agnes Irwin School
The Baldwin School

Bishop McDevitt High School
Dock Mennonite Academy
Friends’ Central School
Germantown Academy
Gwynedd Mercy Academy High School
The Haverford School
The Hill School
Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy
La Salle College High School
Merion Mercy Academy
Mount Saint Joseph Academy
St. Basil Academy
West-Mont Christian Academy                        
The Crefeld School
Nazareth Academy High School
Roman Catholic High School
St. Joseph’s Preparatory School
West Catholic Preparatory High School
The Hun School of Princeton
The Lawrenceville School
Notre Dame High School
The Pennington School
Princeton Day School
Stuart Country Day School of the Sacred Heart
Archmere Academy
Salesianum School
Published (and copyrighted) in Suburban Life Magazine, October 2018.