Inspiring Boys to Help Themselves

A monk. A scoutmaster. A book. And a school, breaking down all the societal barriers that can hold young boys back and empowering them through self-governance, leadership and brotherhood.

A powerful recent 60 Minutes episode brings us the story of St. Benedict's Prep, in inner-city Newark. As you'll see if you watch, half the boys in St. Benedict's School are African-American, a third are Hispanic, and the remainder white. Nearly all come from poverty. Gangs and drugs infest their neighborhoods. The odds against these boys are about as high as they can be.

How astonishing, then, to learn that while 30 percent of the students in Newark drop out of high school, the dropout rate at St. Benedict's is 2 percent. Even more startling, 85 percent of St. Benedict's graduates go on not just to attend college, but to graduate college -- including such schools as Bates, Brown, Columbia, Dartmouth, Georgetown, Notre Dame, New York University, Swarthmore and the University of Chicago.

And this kicker: The students are to an unusual extent self-governing. They make many of their own rules. They coordinate events, set schedules, and monitor and supervise one another's behavior to make sure no one fails. If a student is absent, they go find him. If a student is struggling, they help him. They work in teams, they call one another "brother," and they mean it.

The moral, spiritual and intellectual force behind St. Benedict's is its Headmaster, the Rev. Edwin D. Leahy. A 1963 graduate of St. Benedict's himself, Father Leahy was teaching biology and religion at the school when inner-city rioting led to a decision to close the institution, then already more than a century old. Father Leahy saw that decision as an injustice to the community. So just a year later, he spearheaded the school's reopening.

Of Father Leahy's many big problems, the most notable, perhaps, was this one: He had no idea how to run a school.

But he found inspiration in what he calls "the Good Book." In this context, he meant the Boy Scout Handbook.

Father Leahy had not been a Boy Scout himself. But as I learned from reading a story in Education Week, he had learned the power of the Boy Scout Handbook and the Scout philosophy from another monk who had experience as a scoutmaster. Perhaps that's why every spring, upperclassmen at St. Benedict's lead new students on a four-day, 55-mile hike on the Appalachian Trail - a classic Boy Scout-style adventure in the outdoors and in bonding.

But there's no need to speculate. Here are Father Leahy's own words for how he applied the lessons of Scouting to St. Benedict's:

"We instill and foster leadership and responsibility. From a fellow monk who was a scoutmaster in an earlier life, we have learned not to do for our young men what they can do for themselves. We give our students tremendous responsibility and significant opportunity to serve as leaders in all aspects of school life -- from facilitating Convocation, our schoolwide morning meeting, to running peer-support groups. And it is not the adults but the students who have the responsibility of promoting positive behavior in living our motto: 'Whatever hurts my brother hurts me' -- our homegrown rendering of 'the golden rule' that the pope has stressed as a guide to justice in all societies."

What a powerful testament to the wisdom contained in our Handbook, a volume that was first published in 1910 and the 13th edition was just released earlier this year.

The core of the Handbook, I believe, is the lessons it imparts in citizenship, character, service, friendship, health and care for the outdoors. Included in these lessons is the emphasis on responsibility and on helping others that Father Leahy has made into key features of the culture of his remarkable school.

Although the Boy Scout philosophy remains the same, we know that times change and we update the Handbook periodically. The new edition contains fresh, relevant language and lessons addressing some of the latest youth topics and trends, such as cyberbullying, STEM education and sustainability.

The new edition of the Handbook also presents an opportunity to share the skills and tips within the book and demonstrate what youth learn in Scouting can be used throughout a lifetime. We're bringing that to life through a video series called Handbook Hacks. The first video, for example, called Geocaching, guides participants to the discovery of hidden treasures through lessons about navigation. The videos will be introduced on the Boy Scouts of America's social media channels on Facebook and Twitter.

Through our new video series, we hope more boys and their parents will discover the fun and value of Scouting. And if they do, we're confident they'll find that Scouting's principles and teachings can shape a boy's life in ways that are profoundly good.

Just as they have at St. Benedict's Prep.