Learning to lead


Faithful Shepherd Catholic School in Eagan, an innovative institution founded in 2000, has been successful in its efforts to work alongside educators and parents to form children in mind, body and spirit.

Over the years, parents have continued this grassroots involvement by advocating for programs and even a preschool within the pre-K through eighth-grade Catholic school. And it was a parent of Faithful Shepherd students, John Amann, who began a new program called Pursuit Academy.

The yearlong curriculum is tailored for sixth-grade students, helping them become entrepreneurial leaders. Amann approached the school with the idea because of his own experience in the business world and the apparent lack of leadership formation he witnessed. Amann attended Catholic school his whole life and found that formal education up to the collegiate level failed to provide the skills necessary for practical entrepreneurship and leadership. He noticed the societal shift from allowing children freedom and space for unstructured play in the neighborhood to parents setting up play dates, shuttling kids from eight hours of school to extracurricular commitments and allowing regular use of electronic devices.

Of his own childhood he said, “We had to go out with each other, no parental supervision, just us. We had to create and imagine our own fun, plan our own activities, resolve our own conflicts. [We] learned this stuff intuitively because of that experience.”

Amann acknowledges that other schools, Catholic or otherwise, focus on character development. Still, many students lack the tools they need to serve as leaders, helping other kids to resist pressures and define their own lives.

Pursuit Academy zeroes in on six main skills: being an architect of the future, building parallel interests, being ready to both learn and teach, communicating, opposing peer pressure and being ethical to a fault. It forms students by helping them build their own voices as they move from elementary to middle school.

“Pursuit Academy provides leadership training and skills to our sixth-grade students at a time when they are transitioning from our primary grades into our middle school,” said Mike Randall, executive director at Faithful Shepherd. “By gaining this skill set, they are developing a strong foundation that allows them to have a successful transition and experience for the next three years.”

Enrollment for the 2015-2016 school year was 413 students, with similar enrollment projected for this year. Randall believes the school is successful because of the way it began, with parents taking the initiative to advocate to the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis for a Catholic school in the southeast metro.

“We have an amazingly supportive parent community and an exceptional faculty that work together to achieve a level of excellence that allows our students to find success now and in the future,” Randall said.

Supported by the tri-parish communities of St. John Neumann and St. Thomas Becket in Eagan, and St. Peter in Mendota Heights, Faithful Shepherd operates under a model where teachers work cooperatively in grade level teams. Teachers develop “I Can” statements, setting objectives based on national and state standards to determine goals for each grade level. Teachers teach to these “I Can” statements and, without a set curriculum, are flexible with the needs of each student. Other enrichment programs, learning specialists and Pursuit Academy support this flexible curriculum.

Nick Ryan, a sixth grader in Pursuit Academy, shared how the program helped his middle school transition, giving him confidence to exercise his leadership skills with older peers at school.

Fourth-grade teacher Jenny Swartout was the primary educator in expanding Pursuit Academy into a sixth-grade yearlong requirement. She introduces the vocabulary terms to students, illustrating them with activities and experiences that use age-appropriate, real-life circumstances. Through those experiences, students enhance their own definitions of the concepts they’re learning.

Swartout has a list of local and national entrepreneurs and entertainers that students choose from. They research and study how these people lead and then present their findings to the class. Swartout also incorporates virtues and faith into the curriculum, studying biblical stories that show how Jesus and other figures led. She then encourages the students to take what they learn in the classroom and live it — by mentoring younger students within the school, on basketball teams with teammates and coaches, on the student council and even at middle school dances.

Swartout noticed a difference in the sixth graders at a dance earlier in the school year. She said there are always separate groups of students, but this time, the sixth graders stood out.

“[You see] the eighth-graders, and they’re split, and then you see the seventh graders, and they’re split in their little groups, and then you see the sixth graders, and they’re just in one big blob,” Swartout recalled. “It didn’t matter if they had been friends for 10 years or 10 minutes. They were all just hanging out, having fun.”

Amann commented on their growth as well.

“These sixth graders, after having been through this class … they’re like little adults the way they articulate this stuff.”

John Mark Reimann, a father of a sixth grader in Pursuit Academy, noted how the students “become stronger ambassadors for serving the school and community.”

“There’s a confidence that comes out of this … to be able to stand up in that class and talk about the book they read and the lessons they learned and how it applies [is] probably not something I could’ve done when I was in sixth grade,” he said.

Amann’s vision for the students as a whole is big-picture, long-term, for their future and society as a whole. When asked what his goal is for kids in the Academy, he said, “I want them to have the audacity and confidence … to follow their own personal passions and to do the right thing. There’s nothing more fulfilling than that. Sixty-six percent of the American workforce hates their job. … I want these kids to pursue their own dreams and not end up dissatisfied. I know a lot of people my age who have gotten everything they’ve ever wanted — the job title, the income, the house, the spouse, the kids, and they’re miserable … I don’t want that for kids.”
As a sixth grader, Nick Ryan predicts that the skills learned in Pursuit Academy will aid in his future career.

“I want to be an architect, so I see that it’s helping me work with other people,” he said. “And I think it’s also showing us how to do fun projects, keeping them interesting, but also getting it done.”

The school is looking to host a Pursuit Academy Boot Camp during the summer as a way to introduce the program to more students who could benefit from the leadership focus.  Swartout believes the program will also help reduce bullying within the school because of the focus on communication and cooperation.

Amann explained that the program was named Pursuit Academy to respond to societal pressures to focus on the end goal instead of the journey to the goal. Parents who were at first skeptical of the program are now inquiring about expansion. As a father, Reimann wants it to propagate throughout Faithful Shepherd and into other schools. Amann hopes to reignite the importance of leadership and entrepreneurial training in Catholic schools especially.

“I would love that when anybody hears ‘Catholic K-8 education,’ they automatically think, ‘That’s where kids learn leadership,’ ” he said.

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