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Mercy High breaks tradition

This fall, the Catholic school for girls tests out a new teaching method rooted in social justice. Head of School Scott McLarty predicts: “In short, we will be a place where brothers are jealous of their sisters who get to attend.”

By Valerie Demicheva 


When a student was having trouble with trigonometry last year, Brian Bethel, a math teacher at Mercy High School in San Francisco, gave the class an assignment to create a logo drawn using trigonometric equations for a nonprofit that needed some branding help. The formerly struggling student excelled at the assignment because she could now use the math toward a practical, useful application. “Come the final, she was ready,” Bethel says.

Though the all-girls college preparatory institution was piloting Social Advocacy Based Learning, or SABL, Bethel had seen its effects already take hold in the classroom. This school year, Mercy will meld Catholic traditions with contemporary teaching methods by integrating the new spin on Project Based Learning (PBL), a hands-on approach to learning, which enables students to gain an understanding of subject matters through action, rather than memorization of content. 

The technique has been embraced by a wide range of educators and scholars, including Tony Wagner, expert-in-residence at Harvard University’s Innovation Lab and Senior Research Fellow at the Learning Policy Institute and author of The Global Achievement Gap and Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change The World. Wagner believes that “what matters today … is not how much our students know, but what they can do with what they know.” 

Mercy is embracing that belief, topping it with a mission and purpose to create a more meaningful curriculum that layers Catholic ethics atop vetted methodology. “By rooting PBL in the principles of Catholic social teaching and moral theology and then aiming it at the critical concerns of the Sisters of Mercy: immigration, nonviolence, racism, women and the Earth, Social Advocacy Based Learning requires that students constantly make connections between their classes and the issues of social justice that matter to them,” said Scott McLarty, Head of School at Mercy. 

The goal is to challenge young pupils to find solutions for these pressing modern-day issues rather than merely reflecting on them.

According to McLarty, the first premise of SABL is that students aren’t empty vessels to be filled with information, but instead unique and complicated individuals who learn in different ways, at different paces.

Conventional classrooms work well only if students can flawlessly learn the same things, at the same time and in the same exact way. But SABL is meant to create room for diversity and a variety of learners, not just type of child who can sit fairly still for hours, absorb lectures and give perfect answers on tests. 

“Through SABL, Mercy offers an education as unique as each girl,” McLarty says. “It allows us to reject the ‘one size fits all’ approach of traditional education so girls can stop worrying about fitting in and start finding ways to stand out.” This kind of learning propels Mercy’s mission of empowering young women to graduate with fierce determination to improve their world.

Nearly all of Mercy’s teachers will have at least one SABL assignment prepared for the 2017–2018 school year. The teachers were guided through this process by the Buck Institute for Education, a nonprofit organization that creates, gathers and shares high-quality Project Based Learning instructional practice and products.

Before SABL was introduced at Mercy, Angelica Quinonez, the new Assistant Head of School for Mission, got into the spirit by assigning students to explore social justice through writing political policy papers that addressed the historical background of a current issue, then offering social, political and contemporary philosophical contexts. The research papers were used as part of arguments for students to contact politicians by phone and email on subjects such as climate policy, Native American land rights, immigrants’ rights and prisoner recidivism.

“This inspires them to help in both large and small meaningful ways,” says Quinonez. “It engages them in questions that relate to the gospel, such as: ‘What does the scripture say about welcoming strangers?’” The studies have already moved students to pursue college degrees in matters of impact, and bring what they’ve learned into other areas of study.

Mercy’s SABL approach takes a cue from the business world, using Silicon Valley’s Lean Startup model, which favors adaptability and frequent iteration rather than fixed rules that are harder to amend—or unlearn—once in place. McLarty maintains this will allow the school to evolve quickly, adjusting as needed for maximize results. As McLarty hopes, SABL will help build students who are more deeply engaged in their learning and better prepared for college, work and community activism—whether that means becoming the head of a nonprofit, a public official or simply an informed citizen, able to navigate life with confidence. Said McLarty: “In short, we will be a place where brothers are jealous of their sisters who get to attend Mercy.”  

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