Taking education on the road

While some students may have used summer vacation to work on their tans, several students at Catholic Memorial School in West Roxbury used their free time to expand their horizons.

The Brother Edmund Rice Summer Institute (BERSI), a summer program offering advanced inter-disciplinary academic enrichment for young men and women entering grades 8-12, provided students the opportunity to step outside the classroom and delve into the humanities: literature, history, art, economics, drama, ecology, environmental science and music.

According to program director Joseph McGonegal, Catholic Memorial created the program after Doctor James Keane, the Dean of Academics, approached him and asked to “design a ‘classroom on wheels’ for Catholic Memorial to operate in the summer.”

The goal of the program — the first of its kind for the Archdiocese of Boston — was to enable “students [to] return from BERSI to a new academic year energized by the possibilities of academic work,” according to the program’s brochure.

Using his prior experience with summer programs, McGonegal created a program whereby participants not only learned but also put their knowledge into practice on a daily basis.

Michael Solomon, a senior at Catholic Memorial who attended the program, described a typical day at BERSI. First, the students were divided into groups of 14. Every morning, Catholic Memorial faculty and guest speakers on a particular topic delivered two classroom lectures. Following the talks, participants were taken on a field trip pertaining to the day’s topic.

Taking the program devoted to the theatre as an example, Solomon described how Boston playwright Ronan Noone, 2003 winner of the “Best of Boston” award for best young playwright, gave a talk about “what it takes to create a play.” Later in the day, the BERSI participants traveled to Cambridge to see the play “Romantique.”

“There are so many great places to go in this city and things to do if students could only get to them—but with so few of them available after school, BERSI became a great opportunity to get students to all of these great places,” stated McGonegal.

"It was the most fun and the hardest work I've had and done as a teacher," he said.

"BERSI is not a summer school, per se," McGonegal continued, "but rather a summer institute that seeks to employ novel approaches of team learning, and rigorous academic challenge in a field setting to engage both students and teachers."

Although the program was created by Catholic Memorial, participation was not limited to Catholic Memorial students.

"We want BERSI to appeal to students from all schools--which is why we began recruiting at area girls schools and public schools," explained McGonegal. "We want the best and brightest of Boston to do quality research in the humanities -- that's a big raison d'etre for the institute. This year, even though it was our 'pilot' year, we were fortunate enough to get students from Ursuline Academy and Boston Latin School. Next year, we want more students from such schools, even though given the demand for good summer programs, we could fill the program from within Catholic Memorial's student body."

“For this, our first year, we were at full capacity” said McGonegal. “We had a total of 56 students participate in the program and a waiting list that grew to 30.”

“I really enjoyed the program, although at first I didn’t have such high expectations of it,” confessed Solomon, particularly because “I was one of the oldest people in the program.”

"My expectation was that it would be kind of boring, but I was definitely pleasantly surprised," he said. "It was really cool to learn about something first, and then get to see it in action out in the real world."

"BERSI has benefited from the strong support of the Catholic Memorial administration," said school principal Richard Chisholm. He noted that the faculty's creative approach to teaching was instrumental in the success of the program.

"Here at Catholic Memorial, we are particularly blessed with a highly talented pool of educators. BERSI is the perfect opportunity for some of our finest teachers to share their passion for scholarship with students in innovative ways," said Chisholm.

CM’s president, Brother James MacDonald, CFC, is confident the best is yet to come.

"We are excited to expand the program beyond New England," said Brother James. "This upcoming year, we will introduce 'BERSI International,' a program in which students will travel to Third-World locales to explore the economics, politics, culture, and theology that shape those nations."

According to Solomon, plans are being formulated to take students to El Salvador for “a BERSI-type learning experience.”

"I'll definitely try to do that," he declared.