Forming the Future -- Cathedral High School

Nate Fried-Lipski photo/courtesy Cathedral High

SOUTH END -- No two students are the same -- and neither should their education be. According to Dr. Oscar Santos, headmaster at Cathedral High School in Boston's South End, that is the philosophy behind the school's personalized learning model.

Three years ago, when Santos became the Head of School at Cathedral High School, he noted that "this really seemed to be a special place."

The largely low-income student body -- 88 percent of the school qualifies for free or reduced lunch -- had an "incredible sense of community."

As he came to know the school, Santos realized that what was needed was a personalized learning plan for each individual student. Students learn based on their interests and "have their education tailored to meet their needs," he explained.

"Basically, you cannot teach someone unless there is a personal connection. Otherwise, you can go through the motions, but in order for the teaching really to sink in, there has to be a personalized connection," Santos said.

Santos cited an example -- rather than teach seventh and eighth grade students percentages and ratios, the students are asked to create a model of their ideal school: establish a budget, create a scale model, and write a report explaining their vision. Although the concepts of percentages, writing, fractions, geometry and other topics are necessary in order to execute their project, "the students are much more interested at using those basic concepts in order to create their ideal school."

"We have seen that students are much more invested when they can see tangible results," Santos added, noting that when teaching physical education and health, each student is asked to create a brochure on their personal health plan -- including an exercise regime, as well as healthy eating options. The result is a healthier school population, with an increased focus on healthy lifestyle choices.

According to Santos, the school implemented this model two years ago. Students still take the required math, English, science, history curriculum, but the focus has shifted.

"Teachers have had to look at what they are teaching and then think how to apply that teaching to the real world," Santos said.

In addition to classroom learning, Cathedral High School also brings in professionals in various fields so that students can be exposed to many different opportunities, Santos continued. Every April, over 50 professionals volunteer their time at the school's Career Day. Each of the 326 students in grades 7-12 is required to speak to three different professionals. They prepare questions and are encouraged to "find out more about your passion," Santos said.

Juniors and seniors are also encouraged to participate in the school's internship program. To participate in the program students must create a resume, go on interviews and learn important real-world skills.

"The kids here are doing very well," he said, noting that enrollment is up 30 percent since 2013. In addition, the school boasts a 100 percent graduation rate, with 100 percent of the student body being accepted into college.

"I think that this approach to educating the whole child is something that delivers high quality education, teaches leadership and values the person," Santos said. "This isn't just a job for me; it's my life's passion."

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