Nicole Wirth
Dean of Student Life
Mayfield Junior School
Pasadena, CA

As Dean of Academic Life, I work with teachers to evaluate the school’s academic program. Academic rigor often comes up in conversations with both parents and teachers. What does rigor look like today in a Holy Child school?

Two years ago, I had the privilege of attending the annual meeting of Holy Child Schools in Philadelphia, led by the Director of Holy Child Schools, Sister Eileen McDevitt, SHCJ. On the last night of our gathering, during a friendly game of Holy Child Bingo, Sr. Eileen posed a thought-provoking question: "True or False? Holy Child Schools seek to be academically rigorous."

To my surprise, the answer was a resounding FALSE! Holy Child Schools do not seek to be “rigorous!”

This intriguing response prompted me to delve into the underlying reasons behind Holy Child Schools' philosophy on academic rigor. After all, Holy Child Goal 3 explicitly uses phrases like "intellectually challenging program" and "academic excellence."

What I discovered was that "rigor" is often misunderstood as a heavy academic workload rather than its intended meaning of creating intellectually stimulating learning experiences. As Eric Hudson, an Educational Leadership Consultant, explained, "The problem with the term rigor is that it is too often associated with output (pages read, hours studied, courses taken, levels completed). At its worst, rigor is difficult without purpose, more about assessing what students can endure rather than what they have learned." In essence, it's an emphasis on quantity rather than quality.

At Mayfield Junior School, we challenge students intellectually in new and interesting ways. It's about taking the skills and knowledge acquired and applying them to diverse contexts, which aligns with what educational research refers to as "transfer goals."

It’s in the research and preparation for Mr. Correll’s 8th grade Humanities Mock Trial Project, where, after studying the judicial system, students take on roles in a trial with real judges and lawyers in the jury box (thanks, parents!). They ask morality and value-based questions like, is crime ever justified?

It’s in the trials and many errors of Mrs. Molina’s 6th grade Science Energy Bar Project where students must engineer an energy bar for someone in the military or a refugee of war. How are their needs different? How many calories, sugars, carbohydrates, and protein might they need and still have it taste good?

It’s in Ms. Frazee’s Latin Classical Architecture Project where students must design modern functional buildings with classical and neo-classical architectural elements. How do you design a modern-day Coliseum that is ADA-compliant?

It’s in Mrs. Spiegel and Mrs. Linao’s 2nd-grade Social Studies Maps and Grids Project, where students design a large 3D map of the school and, using Bee-Bot robots, practice telling multi-step directions and solving real-world challenges. For example, starting in the 2nd-grade classrooms, who can get their Bee-Bot in line at the 8th-grade snack bar the fastest with the least amount of moves?

These are just four examples of the authentic projects Mayfield teachers do with their students every day. And, it's not just about individually excelling in our classrooms; it's about preparing our students for high school and positively contributing to our world. A remarkable 90% of recent alumni report that Mayfield prepared them for the academic demands of high school and beyond.

In the words of Cornelia Connelly, "Just as little birds feed their nestlings, we must provide moral and intellectual nourishment to our dear pupils, for that's how the desired result flows."