NEWARK, NJ - Juan Garcia, 17, shouted orders to a gym full of freshman boys at St. Benedict’s Preparatory School. He wanted the younger students to yell back phrases like, “The Class of ‘22 will be different.”
“You have to be here for each other, am I clear?” Garcia said through a microphone. The boys yelled back in unison, “Yes, Mr. Garcia.”
“I can’t hear you,” Garcia shouted back before getting a louder and more powerful response in the gym. The freshmen stood in nearly perfect rows with their shoulders rolled back and chins held high as the upperclassmen counselors checked their formation.
The freshmen looked more like soldiers rather than a group of awkward teens.
That’s because the ninth-graders had just spent five days sleeping on a gym floor together and working with the midshipmen from the U.S. Naval Academy.
The prep school teams up with 12 midshipmen for 24 days of leadership classes when St. Benedict’s students start school each year in late July. It’s a program that the 150-year-old school first started in 2007.
While the classes are required of about 550 seventh to 12th graders, only the freshman class spend five days sleeping and eating together as part of orientation. The ninth graders also learn the school’s history, alma mater and other school songs from upperclassmen and do physical training with the midshipmen.
“It was really tough,” said Andrew D’arcy, a 14-year-old freshman. “It was mentally challenging. It was physically challenging, but it’s preparing you for what’s to come at Benedict’s.”
Another challenge also awaits D’arcy. In May, he will have to hike 55 miles in the Appalachian Mountains with his fellow classmates for five days. It’s an experience the teen said he’s actually looking forward to.
“This whole experience, it’s going to teach me a lot about actual life and I’m going to form a lot of relationships while I’m here. A lot of people here, I’m going to have for the rest of my life.”
MILES AND MEMORIES
For students who go through the hike, it’s an experience they say helped them rely on their fellow classmates and grow.
Joe Carmona, an 18-year-old from Elmwood Park, graduated from St. Benedict’s last year and now attends the Naval Academy. He returned to St. Benedict’s as a midshipman for this year’s leadership program and recalled how it started to hail during his class's trek on the Appalachian Trail about four years ago.
The boys had to sleep under a tarp together to protect themselves from the elements. It was the last leg of the five-day journey, and the boys in his group were tired.
“Everyone is important on the team,” Carmona said of his group on the trail. “You have to rely on each other because out in the woods it gets intense. You start losing your mind a bit and you just got to work with each other.”
While there are adults on the trip, they only intervene in the case of an emergency. It may seem like a harsh approach to education, but the experience sticks with students more than any other class, said the school’s headmaster, Rev. Edwin Leahy.
“It’s such a formative experience of what goes on here in terms of facing adversity, pushing your way through it, and among others, to accomplish a goal,” said Rev. Leahy.
The hike got its start around the same time Rev. Leahy became headmaster in the 1970s, and was part of a movement in education known as experiential learning.
“If we could create these experiences that are very difficult, out of the comfort zone of most kids in the city, and if they could experience success at it, then how does that translate into the rest of their life?” the headmaster said.
DIVERSIFYING RANKING OFFICERS
Minorities have been underrepresented as officers in the military. Federal data show about 19 percent of the Navy's enlisted active duty members were African-American in 2016, and about 8 percent were ranking officers.
A St. Benedict’s board member helped create the program about a decade ago to get the private school’s diverse student population interested in the academy. If students decided to attend the academy, they would become second lieutenants in the Marines or an ensign in the Navy after graduating.
About half of St. Benedict’s students are African American and 32 percent are Hispanic, according to data from the school.
“They wanted to increase the officers to be able to reflect the enlisted ranks,” Rev. Leahy explained. “So also they wanted be able to have the enlisted people see people who look like them who are their leaders.”
There are few women in the Naval Academy too. About 20 percent of the graduating class from the academy last year were women.
Bray Zimmerman, a 19-year-old from the academy, came to St. Benedict’s this year to mentor the all-boys freshman class. She enrolled in the Naval Academy after going to a public high school in Kentucky because she wanted to be surrounded by people who are go-getters with high priorities.
“I love hanging out with the guys,” said Zimmerman. “I grew up with a brother, so being around guys is kind of normal for me.”
STUDENTS FIND THEIR VOICE
St. Benedict's remains an all-boys high school, and tuition at that grade level costs about $13,000 annually before any grants come in. The kindergarten through sixth-grade classes that operate in St. Benedict's are co-ed, while boys and girls in the seventh and eighth grades are separated.
The school has gone through several transformations alongside Newark’s own changes. Enrollment went down after the 1967 Newark riots and the school closed the following year. There was a divide between monks who wanted to stay in Newark and serve the community and those who thought the school should move or close.
A group of monks who remained in Newark reopened the school in 1972, the same year Rev. Leahy was elected headmaster. With the re-establishment came innovative programs, like the Appalachian hike and now the midshipmen program.
Rev. Leahy, a 1963 St. Benedict’s alum, said students basically “run the school.” It's an educational approach that's been coined as the Vox Institute at St. Benedict's and helps students find their voices. Students also become accountable for their own decisions and those of their classmates.
While the aim of the school is to help its students - particularly minorities - discover and amplify their voices, Rev. Leahy had an even simpler goal in mind:
“Get all of us to heaven, that’s the overall mission.”