Why a Maryland School's 53-Year-Old Program is one of the Best Ideas in Catholic Education Today
Updated: May 25, 2022
“If you walk into the school chapel on any given morning, you will see many boys spending quiet time with the Blessed Sacrament,” says Joe Cardenas.
This is not the result of a mandatory prayer policy, but a 53-year-old program that helps students choose the good by engaging teachers in the formation of students in a personal way.
Cardenas is the head of this program—a mentoring program—at The Heights School in Potomac, Maryland.
Founded in 1969, the Heights is an independent liberal arts school that seeks to form “men fully alive”—a phrase inspired by Saint Irenaeus, a second century theologian, who wrote, “The Glory of God is man fully alive.” The school serves boys in third through twelfth grade.
The Heights is not canonically a Catholic school, but it teaches Catholic doctrine, offers daily Mass and confession, and embraces a Catholic understanding of the nature and purpose of the human person, including the recognition of parents as the primary educators of their children. The school community is made up of parents and teachers who expect Catholic values to be reinforced at school and home.
A hallmark of The Heights experience is the school’s mentoring program, which personalizes the mission of the school for each student. “Some Catholic schools have sought prominence through academic programs, sports, or the arts,” Cardenas says. “That’s worked for them. But for us, in addition to those programs, mentoring has become a selling point. It’s part of what defines The Heights experience—and it’s attractive to parents.”
The Heights has been mentoring students since it welcomed its first class. “We’ve always understood the importance of one-on-one development of kids,” Cardenas explains. “We are deliberate in only hiring teachers who have what it takes to be good mentors—who align with our mission, have a good rapport with young people, and have a desire to provide guidance to their students outside the classroom.”
Decades of deliberate hiring has created a faculty of teachers who are enthusiastic about the Heights' mission and are uniquely equipped to cultivate faith and virtue in their students. Getting hiring right has resulted in low turnover, which has contributed to the school’s wealth of experience in teaching and mentoring.
Cardenas has been teaching and mentoring since he joined The Heights’ faculty in 1994. He has been the head of the mentoring program since 2002, when Alvaro de Vicente became headmaster and tasked him with this critical role. Since then, De Vicente and Cardenas have worked together to strengthen the mentoring program and make it the deeply formative experience it is today.
Through the program, each student is assigned a faculty member who serves as his mentor for one to three years. In grades 3-9, a student’s homeroom or core teacher—the faculty member who has the greatest opportunity to observe and built rapport with him in a classroom setting—serves as his mentor, such that every student has a new mentor every year. In grades 10-12, students and parents have input into the selection of a mentor. The goal is for students to keep the same mentor throughout their last three years of high school, but changes can be made when needed.
Mentors are responsible for checking in with mentees through monthly one-on-one conversations that are in addition to interactions that occur regularly in a classroom or casually during the school day. Their goal with every conversation is to advance the mission of the school—"to assist parents in the intellectual, moral, physical, and spiritual education of their sons”—while responding naturally to whatever is going on in their mentees’ lives. Teachers are trained to ask questions that are likely to facilitate fruitful discussions in each of the four areas of formation, including:
Intellectual: “When are you setting aside time to study every day?” “Do you have a TV or Internet in your bedroom?” “What books are you reading outside of class?"
Moral: “Do you do chores cheerfully at home?” “Do you look out for your friends?” “Do you practice gratitude by saying ‘thank you’ and making eye contact?”
Physical: “Do you have a fitness routine?” “Do you work hard and avoid complaining at your sports practice?” “Are you encouraging to your teammates?"
Spiritual: “Do you spend quiet time before the Blessed Sacrament?” “Do you make a nightly examination of conscience?” “Are you taking advantage of confession and Mass at school?”
Respect for parents as the primary educators of their children fuels all aspects of a Heights education. Mentors understand their role as that of “secondary” educators who are tasked with the important job of assisting parents in their sons’ formation. Accordingly, mentors are intentional about involving parents in their mentoring of each student.
During the first few weeks of every school year, all mentors schedule meetings with parents. It is preferable for mentors and parents to meet in person because human contact facilitates stronger partnerships. At these meetings, mentors ask parents dozens of questions about their sons, including:
How does he spend his time at home?
How does he interact with his family?
How and when does he spend time with God in prayer?
During the school year, mentors touch base with parents on a regular basis, often reaching out for input in advance of mentoring conversations with their sons. They also alert parents to emerging problems and encourage parents to reach out with concerns as they arise. These communications are critical in helping mentors provide informed guidance throughout the school year. They also serve a higher purpose of uniting teachers and parents in a shared effort to help students grow in faith and virtue.
As The Heights’ website explains this goal:
It is the partnership between the mentor and the parents that makes mentorship successful. The mentee should be able to recognize that the message he hears at home is similar to the one he hears from his mentor.
Cardenas explains that one of the most important aspects of the mentoring program is that it empowers teachers to act—not “just” as teachers, but as partners with parents in helping their sons choose the good. As a result, when mentors notice a student needing guidance in a particular area—for example, if they observe him being unkind to a classmate, disrespecting a teacher, or struggling to organize his schoolwork—they often reach out and give advice to the student and his parents.
Parents welcome the advice. In fact, many parents consider the support they receive through mentoring to be one of the greatest benefits of being a part of The Heights community.
Cardenas admits that this would not be possible at all schools. But at Catholic schools—where parents expect the faculty to help cultivate faith and virtue in their children—a greater emphasis on mentoring could strengthen all aspects of the education provided. In particular, it could help kids become more thoughtful and charitable in their interactions with classmates, thus creating a healthier and more joyful school environment where students and parents treat each other with kindness.
The Heights is not the only school in the country with a mentoring program, but it may be the school with the best developed mentoring program. Cardenas increasingly counsels leaders at other schools about how to begin or strengthen mentoring activities. To accommodate increasing demand for his advice, he is developing an online course that is comprised of 9 modules with three lessons. It will be available on The Heights' website in the coming months.
He offers this advice to schools starting a mentoring program in the meantime:
Create a strategic plan and be transparent about what it is so parents know how teachers will be interacting with their children. The Heights shares key information on its website, including an overview of the program for students and parents, a 14-page Mentoring Handbook, and documents outlining topics raised in mentoring conversations in the Lower School, Middle School, and Upper School.
Only hire great teachers who will be great mentors. Mentoring has always been a part of the Heights experience, so it has always been a major consideration in hiring. As a result, The Heights has a faculty made up of great teachers with decades of mentoring experience.
Give teachers time off during the day to dedicate to mentoring. Heights teachers in grades 3-9 are given adjusted schedules so they can dedicate sufficient time to mentoring the approximately 20 students in their homeroom or core class; teachers in grades 10-12 teach five classes and mentor five students.
Provide training and hold mentors accountable. Cardenas gives talks on mentoring to the Heights faculty two to three times a year. Twice a year, he meets with mentors one-on-one to review their progress with individual students and offer his help.
Cardenas advises schools to be patient as they develop their own programs, and to recognize that it takes time, resources, and hard work to change the culture of a school.
The Heights program has grown and become stronger over many years. Cardenas says it is one of the "best investments” his school has made in its students. He explains:
All of our teachers have stories. Often, students come back after they graduate to tell us that mentoring made all the difference for them. They tell us something specific we said—a piece of practical advice or a deeper insight about the Faith—helped them and stuck with them.
“That’s why it’s so gratifying to see kids praying in front of the Blessed Sacrament every day,” he says. “For one thing, it means the kids are internalizing the advice from their mentors."
"But most importantly, it means they are making a habit of approaching Jesus, Really Present in the Eucharist, with an open heart—and there is no better way for these kids to discern God's will throughout their lives."
Kimberly Begg is editor of Catholic School Playbook and director of programs and general counsel of the Ortner Family Foundation.