The value of living a life of service cannot be understated, and this is particularly apparent in young people. Research shows that service-learning projects — volunteering and giving back to their communities in other ways — help to improve character and teach responsibility. Above all, students learn to find meaning in their actions, which helps them navigate their lives with purpose and intention. Service learning also boosts empathy and creativity.
Despite this, few schools truly cultivate ways to encourage students in this endeavour. It’s been well documented online that the rigid structure of the modern schooling system, being largely focused on academic achievement, does not always provide room for individual growth. The most-watched TED talk even makes the claim that schools kill creativity — and with this, opportunities for a student to discover the best of themselves.
Still, there are some institutions that are attempting to change that. These schools are the drivers of change, creating an environment that prioritises a sense of empathy and community. The result? Happy, healthy students who are driven to succeed not because of societal pressure, but out of a sincere desire to benefit their communities, empowered by a strong sense of self..
Here are four US schools that are encouraging students to live purposeful lives:
Sandy Spring Friends School
Inclusive and accepting. Kind and compassionate. A safe space to express yourself. A Community Service programme that helps in real and concrete ways. These are just some of the ways students and parents have described Sandy Spring Friends School (SSFS).
Stretched across 140 acres in the serene woodlands of Maryland, SSFS is a coeducational college preparatory school for students from age three through 12th Grade, with an optional boarding programme for Upper School students. It is, at its core, inclusive: 59% of its 685-student community identify as students of colour, representing as many as 19 countries (in 2019) across the world. More than that, it is a community that recognises the unique worth of each student as an individual, and as an agent of positive change in the world.
SSFS is a Quaker school with a 325-year-old approach to learning that heavily emphasises learning through service. In this, the school has designed a unique academic curriculum that teaches students to question the “why” and “how” rather than just the “what.” Experience-based opportunities show them how to use knowledge inuseful and meaningful ways. An enriched arts programme, inclusive athletics, and civic engagement opportunities build intellectual engagement, collaboration, and strength of character further.
Here, teachers are more than just educators — they become family. They are dedicated to helping their students discover their inner passions and talents. Open communication is encouraged, and, in keeping with Quaker practices emphasising equality, students often refer to teachers and admin staff by their first names. The result is an authentic sense of mutual respect and trust between students and faculty — a rare quality in schools, and one that helps students reach their full potential.
All the while, students learn — and in the case of boarding students, live — on a beautiful campus that bridges the best of city and country. Natural ponds, cross-country trails, and a community farm give students the opportunity to engage with nature meaningfully. They’re a short drive away from Baltimore and Washington D.C. — both full of museums, exhibits, universities and colleges, and even more opportunities for civic engagement. It’s an inspiring and motivating place to be for any young person growing into themselves.
John Bapst Memorial High School
Ranked the #1 high school in Maine, John Bapst Memorial High School is a coeducational, nonsectarian, independent college preparatory high school that is creating a friendly, supportive community of inquisitive learners. It was established in 1928, bringing forth close to a century of history and culture to its walls as well as a tradition of excellence that is fused into its high-achieving, motivated student community.
Here, every student reaches their full potential. John Bapst focuses on flexibility and individualisation, which starts by mapping out a student’s core course choices for their four years here. Independent studies are common, so are connecting kids with researchers at local universities for extended work.
There are various opportunities for John Bapst students to extend learning beyond their classwork. The Distinguished Graduates Programme — an individualised honours programme — lets students take on rigorous capstone projects. Combined with a challenging high school curriculum — as many as 24 Advanced Placement (AP) courses are offered — they ensure students graduate strong, with many progressing to elite universities each year.
John Bapst’s sports programme further promotes growth, leadership, and teamwork. It includes football, soccer, field hockey, cheering, golf, basketball, ice hockey, swimming, tennis, softball, baseball, outdoor track and field. Everyone is encouraged to participate.
“Students at John Bapst, from 35 Maine towns and 12 other countries, graduate with opportunities to take advantage of great programmes in Maine and acceptances to top colleges in New England and the US,” David Armistead, Head of School.
“The school’s curriculum is both rigorous and interesting. Visit our school today and you’ll see students designing robots, debating the merits of political candidates, reciting poetry, conducting science labs, and speaking Chinese. Don’t be surprised, by the way, if you see a lot of students — and teachers — having fun!”
Cincinnati Hills Christian Academy
Preparing students to make a real-world impact — that’s the central driving force of Cincinnati Hills Christian Academy (CHCA). Here, students are given the tools and support they need to thrive academically, socially, and spiritually.
CHCA’s vision is to “unleash each student’s God-given gifts through Christ-centered academic excellence. We are devoted to developing the whole person, and instilling a lifelong passion to learn, lead, and serve.”
At CHCA, students conduct independent research projects, run small businesses, learn in a teaching kitchen, participate in real-world internships, perform on stage, and win in athletics. Students learn outside the walls of the classroom during Intersession, engineer and build robots, and serve hundreds of hours at home and abroad. Through it all, they are challenged to grow spiritually and develop a resilient faith. Each student’s experience is as unique as they are.
CHCA’s curriculum is designed to challenge students and ensure that they’re ready for college and beyond. “We’ve carefully designed our college-preparatory programme — from preschool through grade 12 — to foster lifelong passions for learning and providing thoughtful, effective leadership,” says Randy Brunk, Head of School.
Athletics and the arts are much more than just activities outside the classroom. These are opportunities for students to discover their passion and talent. There is a wide range of top-notch facilities and athletic options here, including football, cross country, volleyball, golf, tennis, swimming and more.
San Marcos Academy
Nestled between Austin and San Antonio, in the beautiful Texas hill country is San Marcos Academy, a coeducational school for boarding students from grades six to 12 and day students from grades K to 12th. Here, students are treated to a unique educational experience amidst a 220-acre campus, realising their potential both academically and as individuals.
This fully-accredited Christian school offers a college preparatory curriculum designed to engage and inspire students, preparing them to not just succeed in college, but in life.
This is done through the “Teaching for Transformation” curricular model which provides a framework for students to learn about God’s story while discovering their place within that story. These authentic and transformational learning experiences expose students of all grades to discipleship concepts such as worship, truth, justice, service and community.
Its Christian Ministries aims to produce leaders whose lives are built on integrity, a strong moral compass, and a total commitment to life-long learning and who exemplify Christ’s devotion to service and His compassionate concern for others. Students not only complete one credit in Religion during their Upper School years, but join chapel services, and take part in events including “See You at the Pole,” “Fields of Faith,” and “Seek Week,” an evangelical focus for Middle and Upper School students that culminates in a baptismal service.
Athletics play a pivotal role here too. All SMA students are encouraged to get involved in sports to build values in sportsmanship, integrity, and character. The Student Recreation Organisation also hosts weekly and monthly events such as board games, karaoke, card games, arts and crafts, holiday-themed festivities and much more.
“Since its founding, San Marcos Academy has educated students from around the globe. Both our Boarding and Day programmes are designed to provide a strong academic foundation, built on excellence, as well as to equip our students with the values and virtues that enable them to become upstanding citizens,” shares president Dr. Brian N. Guenther.
“The opportunities for leadership are extensive, and students are encouraged to get involved in campus organisations, athletics, fine arts, and service to the surrounding community.”
*Some of the institutions featured in this article are commercial partners of Study International