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Preparing students for higher ed and beyond includes real-world skills, experiences

Adam Jay, a woodworking teacher at Hope Hall School, teaches a student the safe and proper way to use a sliding power miter saw.
Adam Jay, a woodworking teacher at Hope Hall School, teaches a student the safe and proper way to use a sliding power miter saw. (Photo provided)

The greater Rochester region is home to 55 diverse private schools ranging from parochial to non-sectarian and independent. With the 2022-23 school year up and running, the Rochester Business Journal reached out to three of them to see how their schools work with the greater Rochester community to ensure their students gain the skills they need when they graduate.

The Aquinas Institute: College prep and multiple capstones

At the Aquinas Institute, the next chapter for graduates is typically college. In the first few weeks of this school year, admissions counselors from over forty colleges have visited Aquinas already.

The school, which was founded in 1902 and is affiliated with the Rochester Roman Catholic Diocese, typically has a graduating class size of around 125 and about 99% are college-bound (the vast majority to four-year schools). Those who do not attend college immediately are usually international students or students who enter the armed forces.

Ted Mancini

“College prep is our mission,” said Theodore N. Mancini, principal of the Aquinas Institute and a member of the Class of 1988. “We work really hard to make sure our students graduate with the skills they’ll need in college. College readiness is certainly about academics, but also about skills like networking, being responsible, and having good decision making.”

The school, which serves students in grades six to twelve, collaborates with Rochester’s local colleges and universities to ensure their curriculum and testing is in-line with what postsecondary institutions expect of incoming students.

For example, all final exams at Aquinas are vetted by college professors to make sure what they’re requiring from students aligns with what higher education is expecting. Mancini gave the example of last year’s final English exams going to the English department at Nazareth College of Rochester for feedback before being administered. Active or retired higher education professionals from the area also sit on Aquinas’ Academic Mission Committee.

The school also works with alumni from a variety of disciplines within Rochester’s business community to conduct mock interviews for sophomores and to serve as field experts for students’ comprehensive capstone projects, which are completed every year as part of the sixth through 12th grade curriculum.

“The capstone project is designed for students to create smart goals and to measure their progress,” Mancini said. “They do lots of creative, innovative, and diverse projects, like exploring the impact of concussions on athletes who continue to play, looking at what kinds of mechanisms exist in cars that were created because of motorsports, and examining the scoring in films and how it relates to the emotional response of the viewer.”

Hope Hall School: Woodworking and American Sign Language

A private, non-sectarian school for grades three through 12, Hope Hall School was founded in 1994 and specializes in the Dolce Method for Learning, which was written and copyrighted by Sister Diana Dolce, S.S.J., the school’s founder and executive director.

This method was designed for students who learn differently, often due to central auditory processing delays and/or mild anxiety disorders, and teaches academic, organizational, and social skills in a non-traditional way. The school also teaches college and career readiness in creative ways, like a required woodworking program for students in grades ten through twelve.

Samantha Standing

“Students learn woodworking, but they also learn a lot of other skills, like how to plan out a project, how to collaborate, how to use machinery safely, how to work with team members, and how to receive feedback constructively,” said Samantha Standing, the school’s director of advancement, who noted some Hope Hall graduates go on to careers in fine-woodworking with Rochester-based businesses.

The Gates-based school has a total student population of 140 with four full-time staff members teaching career development (including its two woodworking). Hope Hall typically graduates 15 to18 seniors a year, of whom about 40% go immediately on to college and about 60% enter the workforce, though those numbers can fluctuate from year to year.

Companies the school partners with and/or who regularly hire Hope Hall students include Bill Gray’s, Seabreeze, McDonalds, ISquare, Hammer Packaging and Wegmans. The school also offers students instruction on tangible matters like how to fill out a financial aid application if they are college-bound, how to check their credit scores, and how to utilize public transportation for school or work.

Additionally, Hope Hall School requires students in grades seven to nine to take American Sign Language.

“With the high population of people who are deaf in Rochester the skills students learn in ASL are not just skills they use in the classroom, but that they can utilize in the community,” Standing said. “They may have a co-worker or customer who is deaf and they will have the basic conversational skills to communicate with them.”

The Harley School: Hospice and advocacy

Founded in 1917, the Harley School is a student-centered, college preparatory, independent day school in Brighton for about 500 students in grades from nursery to 12. Part of the school’s mission is to show students how to care for the world and other people and that carries into the school’s civic-engagement approach to preparing students for life beyond the classroom.

“Our program is pretty explicitly college preparatory, but we’re trying to get our students ready not only for that world but the world,” said Larry Frye, the Harley School’s head of school. “A core part of our mission for generations has been not to be a bubble or an island onto ourselves.”

An example of this is the Harley School’s multifaceted and often transformative hospice program, where twelfth-grade students are intimately involved in providing end-of-life care for people in the community. Students take a class where they learn about the history of hospice and are taught the physical, mental, and emotional skills needed to work with patients, families, and staff in a hospice care home.

Then students also have the opportunity to volunteer in one of six local hospice homes in the Rochester region, where they build relationships, provide hands-on care, and also learn to take care of their emotional health while being part of a community where loss and death happen regularly.

Students at the Harley School can also complete a capstone project senior year that is a culmination of their time at the school. Often these projects include working with professionals in the community and have benefits for others.

Examples of capstone projects include multilingual instructional videos for the Rochester non-profit refugee outreach Mary’s Place to use to show refugees how to use common appliances and an interactive exhibit to teach community members how a solar chimney functions.

Other civic engagement initiatives at the Harley School include MLK Day On! – a day of community service and solidarity; Beyond Soup – a student group that cooks meals at St. Joseph’s House of Hospitality in Rochester; and events with the M. K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence.

“Part of our expectation is that pur kids will have an experience with advocacy and dissent while they’re here,” Frye said. “We want them to answer, ‘What do I care about in our community?’ ‘What do I want to make a stand about?’ ‘How do I advocate for change?’ We think this is a key part of being an educated person.”

Caurie Putnam is a Rochester-area freelance writer.