‘Ignatian spine’ strengthens summer program

Upward Bound has history of educating young men in Jesuit tradition, with sights on college-prep

A cluster of boys sat at George Theron's feet, awaiting instructions for their "protest."

The boys were stepping back in time to 1963 at Jefferson Bank & Trust Co., where protestors demonstrated against the bank's discriminatory policy of not hiring African-Americans. Theron, acting as a member of the Committee on Racial Equality, explained the context of the civil disobedience being reinacted by the boys.

Sitting shoulder to shoulder at the Missouri History Museum, they clapped and sang along with Theron a popular protest song of the civil rights movement of the mid-20th century:

"We shall not, we shall not be moved. We shall not, we shall not be moved. Just like a tree that's planted by the water — we shall not be moved."

The demonstration, part of a museum exhibit on civil rights in St. Louis, was among the highlights of the boys' trip through Forest Park on a recent weekday. The field trip was part of Upward Bound Academy, a four-week summer enrichment program at St. Louis University High School. The goal is to boost the skills of rising seventh- and eighth-grade boys, and to prepare them for a college-prep high school.

The program highlights the longstanding tradition of Jesuit education of incorporating a spiritual vision into a program that cultivates "resilient mindsets for growth and challenge and executive functioning skills — skills like metacognition, self-awareness and organization," Upward Bound executive director Tim Curdt said.

"The ability to continually challenge ourselves to embrace new experiences and then reflect meaningfully on them in a spiritual context is a real grace we are given daily in our schools," he said. "With so many options today, I think embracing this spiritual context for teaching self-awareness and resilience is one of the most compelling reasons to send your child to a Catholic school."

Program foundation

The Upward Bound program essentially grew out of the civil rights era, when nonviolent protest and civil disobedience were aimed at ending racial segregation and discrimination against African-Americans. Jesuit Fathers Mark McKenzie and Tom Valiquette started the program in 1966 as a way to assist financially disadvantaged students — mostly children of color from the city — prepare for a college prep high school. The program also prepped students for the Catholic school entrance exam, which at the time was required to attend a Catholic high school.

Over the years, the demographics of the program shifted. By the 1980s it had lost its focus of helping at-risk students in the city. In the early 1990s, SLUH initiated a Minority Action Plan to boost enrollment of African-American students and looked to Upward Bound to go back to its roots. The program currently has 130 students representing 53 schools in the bi-state area, 36 of them Catholic.

"Today the program has expanded beyond the mission and includes students from all over the metro area who are seeking these enrichment experiences as prepare for high school," Curdt said.

During the four weeks, students have lessons in math, literature, writing and problem solving, as well as off-site field trips that tie into their studies. The program does more than just giving them the academics, Curdt and other leaders stressed. The idea is to cultivate mindsets that embrace growth and challenges often found in an academic environment. All of that is woven into the Ignatian tradition of reflecting inwardly in relation to solving problems and understanding concepts in learning.

St. Ignatius "is the spiritual spine that runs through the program," said Steve Missey, who serves as principal of the eighth-grade program. "We have this four-week curriculum where we focus on study skills, executive functioning, mindset. Then in the middle of all of that, we have the Ignatian spine. Every morning we're talking about some study skills strategy or some concept, then we go to prayer. For Ignatius, we talk about the Examen — ways to review your day in order to see things in a way you wouldn't see otherwise."

Over their four weeks, eighth-graders studied St. Louis history, including events such as the 1904 World's Fair and segregation. For their field trip to Forest Park — across Oakland Avenue and Highway 40 from the school — "we are here experiencing those subjects first hand" and connecting it in a spiritual way, Missey said. "It's opening up imaginative possibilities. They can't necessarily see the umbrella that I'm describing, but they're experiencing it from the inside."

Touring the civil rights exhibit, eighth-grader Michael Lewis reflected on how "it shows the struggles and emphasizes how our people were treated. It shows that we have changed some, but there is more room for progress and change."

The student at St. Louis Catholic Academy noted that in looking at the history through the lens of faith, he sees the opportunities for growth through prayer, confession and speaking out. "You can go to church, make a speech and present it to your community," he said.

Miles Quigless, a 2016 SLUH graduate, is the second in his family to attend Upward Bound. Now an incoming sophomore at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Quigless is on staff as a learning coach at Upward Bound, mentoring the young students. Quigless' father also attended the program and then later taught there.

"For me, and I know for them as well, it's something that really helps you prepare for high school," he said. "A lot of the study habits that I learned that helped me get into SLUH, I learned all from Upward Bound. We give the students binders that help them keep track and accountable with those habits."

As for the spiritual side, Quigless said that it's all about "being a man for others," in the longstanding Jesuit tradition. "I try and tie in with my guys in their every day actions, you're supposed to find God in everything. I make my guys understand how to be men for others, whether that's looking out for one another with their fellow classmates, or trying to get them to be more courteous and overall better people." 

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