St. Stephen’s Episcopal Day School
Coconut Grove, Florida
St. Stephen’s Episcopal Day School is a PreK through Grade 5 place of active learning with a strong community focus and a mission for both academic excellence and spiritual growth. The two branches of the school’s mission are visible at all levels within the school, with trustees doing their part to lead the way.
Faculty, staff, trustees and members of the vestry at St. Stephens sign a covenant at the beginning of each school year. The covenant serves at least two purposes: it is a reminder of the commitment all adults in the community have toward the young people the school serves; it is also a public statement of support for the school’s mission. And it is indeed a public statement: rather than sit in an out-of-the-way room reserved for occasional use, the signed document hangs over one of the most frequently traveled doorways in the school. Signatories pledge, among a few other things, to provide a safe and nurturing environment for the children of the school, to love and care for each child, to lead by example in their commitment to love, and to take responsibility for fostering a sense of community.
Character and spirit are integrated at St. Stephen’s, as they ideally should be. For the faculty, the spiritual values are character values, and the character virtues are spiritual virtues—the difference being that the latter are seen as infused and enriched by the spirit of the Lord.
Explicit in mission/integrated into lifeThough St. Stephens’ mission to provide students with ethical and spiritual foundations is explicit, growth of the spirit is also woven into the pledge that students make each morning. When the pledge of allegiance is finished, students recite their character pledge: “With God’s help I will be respectful, honest, kind, inclusive, responsible, and a good ambassador.”
The character pledge is followed by one additional set of statements, committing them to respect the earth and care for its resources.
Oversight: Spiritual Development CommitteeSpiritual life is overseen specifically by school chaplain Vanessa Stone, with the full support of Head of School Silvia Larrauri. The chaplain works with a Spiritual Development Committee, a group of seven teachers from a variety of disciplines. The committee has developed a set of goals they want all St. Stephen’s students to reach, and a Spiritual Development Pathway (see below, Integration).
Planned approach The school’s core character values are addressed in a variety of ways and in a variety of venues, and—as stated above—are looked upon as both character values and spiritual virtues.
The adults at St. Stephens have taken the time to think through their goals for spiritual growth in students. In a beautifully appropriate way, they also realize that spiritual life cannot be mandated; adults can set goals (there are currently twelve), and it is their duty to teach and model the goals; but how spiritual seeds take root is, ultimately, between the child and God.
The goals on the “spiritual pathway” St. Stephens has outlined include such items as students believing that all are children of God, that God is a God of love, that God’s love is unconditional, that students know they are created with a purpose and are “personally responsible to cultivate the seeds of greatness within them,” and that each recognizes his or her responsibility for exhibiting the moral and ethical values mentioned daily in their pledge.
There are elements in the spiritual pathway that are—as should be the case—specifically Christian and in some cases specifically Episcopal: “that each child understands the basic tenets of the Christian faith as put forth in the Nicene Creed and our Episcopal traditions, Sacraments, and the Holy Eucharist,” and that by 5th grade students be able to navigate the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer. At the same time, the school’s message of, and commitment to, inclusivity is also clear in its goals: that each child is responsible for creating his or her own personal relationship to God, that each student values and respects other faith traditions, and that each child has the ability to pray in accord with his or her own faith tradition.
Integration into curriculumSt. Stephens is outstanding in the extent to which teachers are able and willing to integrate character and spirit into their classwork. Even the math classroom—an area where teachers sometime struggle to find ways to integrate character or spiritual development—is successful in making appropriate connections. To offer but one example, one teacher has students do a “philanthropy” lesson, asking them to think about the needs of others on a multi-dimensional “winning the lottery” math assignment.
Extracurricular integrationBeyond the morning pledges mentioned above, the signs of St. Stephens’ commitment to nurturing the spirit are plentiful throughout the school. Posters are ubiquitous, including student-made family trees that display the rich religious lineages in many children’s families (my father is Rasta, my mother is Jewish; I’m Catholic, and so are my parents).
Students and teachers at St. Stephens use iPads, complete with QR readers; Chaplain Stone has placed QR codes at a variety of places around the school. Those who read them are reminded of some facet of the school’s goals for character and or spiritual development.
The pledge to the earth that is recited in chapel is followed up in action. The school cafeteria uses the corn-based compostable glasses and eating utensils when non-disposable flatware cannot be used, and recycling is the norm.
Chaplain Stone and her committee have done a variety of things to assess progress. Faculty discuss the program, of course, and make adjustments as needed. The program is also discussed with students for their suggestions. St. Stephen’s has also used an adaptation of CSEE’s Spiritual Climate Survey. The SCS was developed and field tested with grades 6 - 12. Stone took questions and topics that were relevant to the school’s goals, the ages of St. Stephen’s students, and the culture of the school, and devised her own Survey Monkey questionnaire. She thus now has both a more objective look at the program than is normally available from personal interviews or general discussions with either faculty or students; and she has baseline data to help assess progress in future endeavors.
What do students say?The consensus heard during a CSEE visit is that students hear and like the school’s spiritual message. When asked, they uniformly say there is a God, God loves us, and God wants us to be good. The school is unabashedly Episcopal—in name as well as in practice—and yet the young people we had a chance to talk with were clear that if one were Roman Catholic or Jewish or any of a number of other traditions, there is neither pressure to hide the fact nor to “change sides” (these comments were supported in the survey results). It is truly a message of full inclusion, inclusion even of those who are not sure there is a God.
Most importantly, St. Stephen’s knows it is not perfect. There are things they know they could do better, and steps are continually under way to improve to the extent possible. But where many schools endeavor to get heads and hearts together, St. Stephen’s is marching ahead with head, heart, and hand.