Getting rigor right is a way of life at St. John's Prep in Danvers

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St. John's Prep began its 116th year as an educational institution this fall, driven by a time-honored academic mission to blend the school's traditional pursuit of excellence with 21st-century tools and techniques that deliver both substance and sensibility. High School English teacher Jay Pawlyk, a 1991 graduate, explains what that looks like on a day-to-day basis.

"I think there's an overwhelming vibe here that academic rigor can exist in concert with a focus on each individual kid as an individual learner," he says. "Teachers know so much more about kids now than our own teachers did, and that knowledge is a privilege and a responsibility. Looking at rigor on an individual basis is a way to manifest that balance."

Gone are the days when rigor meant hard work and lots of it, just for the sake of it. Fostering academic excellence is now about sparking students to exercise different muscles intellectually, and it's also tapping into different skills that different students have, and challenging them in every conceivable way.

"On one side of our teaching brain, we're aware of the uniqueness of each kid, which is also part of the spirituality of our school," says Pawlyk. "If I have a student who's clinical and analytical, but is struggling to grasp how to read imaginatively, that's going to really inform what rigor will mean, and learning will mean, and achievement will mean for him. It's up to me to support him in getting there."

St. John's Prep Principal Keith Crowley expands on that thinking.

"All of our work with students at St. John's is anchored in building meaningful and enduring relationships," he says. "Research shows that all learners, in particular adolescent boys, have better learning outcomes when they have strong relationships with their teachers and feel supported in the learning process. Our faculty work tirelessly to engage students with two missions in mind: Building their self-confidence along with skill- and content-based competence while leveraging our many resources to help them meet expectations and even exceed anticipated learning outcomes."

High School science teacher Kristine Erwin combines anime with a debate format to help students understand the differences between renewable energy resources, and learn the pros, cons, and limitations of each. Students are divided into groups and, after creating a digital representation of a superhero who personifies their chosen energy source, they make their case in a bracket style debate competition.

"The debate creates a need for a deeper understanding of different energy resources in order to refute opponents' point of view, all while thinking on their feet," says Erwin. "The comic book piece elicits some really creative thinking about their superhero's distinctive qualities, strengths, and weaknesses as they relate to a particular energy source."

Through the school's Center for Mission and Research, seniors can opt to take the Advanced Research Capstone class. The course allows students to deeply explore research methods and design by constructing a focused research-based project in an area of interest. By the end of the year, students will showcase their new knowledge through a written literature review and public presentation. Ultimately, this course enables students to engage and reflect on local and global issues in order to contribute towards a more just society.

Grade six humanities teacher Sam Zatkowski says that more than ever, teachers in the Middle School are focusing on ways to honor the individual student while challenging him to learn what he needs to learn in a supportive, empathic, and connected manner.

For a podcast project Zatkowski assigns, student groups choose subject areas that have multiple perspectives or angles, which the boys can explore. They select a topic, identify their role on the podcast team, and settle a debate in a recorded, conversation-style format.

"Beyond the obvious research and writing skills that come with projects like this, the unit calls for students to develop the social skills they need to be successful," says Zatkowski. "There are very few jobs, occupations, or vocations that involve individual, isolated work, so the challenges the boys face in a project like this prepare them to navigate future interactions."

Principal Crowley seconds that emotion.

"Ultimately, we're duty bound to be a place where students celebrate moments of success, persevere in moments of challenge, and embrace their capacity to create good for others."