The Comenius School for Creative Leadership: A Model for Training Tomorrow’s Leaders
By Sandy Woods and Sarah Godwin
From the outside, it seems like any other school. The sun has been up less than an hour, and the students have been up less than that. Cars circle a well-worn parking lot, dropping off students at the front door where teachers stand welcoming each child as they enter. A few students muster a “good morning” reply, but most are the typical sleepy-headed bunch—still waking up. At MorningStar’s day school, the Comenius School for Creative Leadership (CSCL), students start the morning, not in separate rooms, but gathered together in the main auditorium. Like most other schools, the morning begins with announcements: a bake sale on Thursday, a home basketball game on Friday night, the winter dance is in two weeks. Announcements end, but classes do not start yet. Before students head to their classrooms, we set time aside to seek the Lord. Overhead lights are turned off. The room is gently lit by rays of sunlight beaming through the glass doors. A student picks up a guitar and walks to the front of the room saying, “Everyone find a place to get still before the Lord this morning, and just listen to Him.” While there are principles and class structures that differentiate our school from other schools, this gathering at the start of each day is primarily what sets us apart. CSCL produces creative leaders. Teachers and administrators are there for support, but the students lead as we worship, pray, and grow in knowledge. Through experience, trial and error, they discover what type of leader God has created them to be. Morning Chapel At CSCL, we believe students can learn both how to hear from God for each other and how to lead others in receiving from the Holy Spirit. By setting aside the first 20 minutes of the morning with a student-led chapel time, we give students this opportunity to lead and set the atmosphere for the school day. We have no agenda for the students other than to be together before the Lord. After worship, we pray. Then the students head out to their morning classes, but we encourage them to continue in the presence of the Lord throughout the day. Any student from grade six through grade twelve can sign up to be the worship leader of a morning chapel and chapel times reflect the various personalities and gifts of these student leaders. We encourage students to step up and lead in any way they would like. Therefore, worship is different every morning. One time, a group of seventh-grade girls who practiced together after school, led the entire school in a worship dance. Another time, a group of sixth graders performed a puppet-show worship song. Most mornings our student worship leader has written original songs or composed an instrumental piece and plays for the other students. Sometimes worship is loud and other times it is soft. A teacher and student may even lead worship together. Either students are learning to step out of their comfort zones and bring their gift before the Lord, or they are learning to follow their peers into the presence of the Lord. Morning chapel becomes a safe place where they can learn to grow and lead others into God’s presence. We see this as our highest goal.
Many mornings a student may come forward expressing a prayer need and the students and teachers gather around that one to pray. Teachers and administrators build relationships with students so the youth feel comfortable sharing in front of each other.Academic subjects are important. We guide students through each grade, but each student and teacher knows that what we value most is building relationship with each other and cultivating the awareness of the presence of the Lord. At CSCL, students learn to hear from God while also learning their school subjects.
As well as setting a free and safe atmosphere, we believe that what we teach is just as important as how we structure our school schedule. Unlike most schools, we arrange our classes around a four-day school week. School is in session each week from Monday through Thursday.
Fridays are open for students to freely pursue their own interests.
Though we do not have school on Friday, the building is a busy place. On Friday mornings, the writing club meets here in the sixth grade classroom, as students and teachers share their writing with each other and offer feedback. At the same time, a photography club, led by a local photographer, is using the art room. Each Friday afternoon, our senior worship leader teaches guitar to those who want to learn to play.
In addition, many students pursue their own interests off campus. A group of third grade boys practice soccer together; a fourth grader experiments with creating her own jewelry; and a ninth grader discovers her gifting with various paints, watercolors, and charcoals. Her parents credit the freedom on Fridays with helping their daughter develop her God-given artistic talents. One semester, every Friday morning several middle school students gathered at the home of a former teacher to learn about the love of the Father. That group then formed their own ministry trip and traveled to the Dakotas to minister to Native Americans for a week in the summer. Our upper school students invest their Fridays volunteering in various places, like the animal shelter across the street from our school or the café at our church. Students serve and develop technical skills by volunteering with MorningStar’s various media and ministry departments. Our juniors and seniors, who are beginning to plan for life after high school, visit colleges or work part-time jobs so they can be better prepared for where the Lord may lead them.
We do not require students to do any one thing in particular, but provide the time for them to pursue their own interests. We have discovered that this extra day is important in helping students discover their passions and invest in their own development.
No Homework Policy
Our no-assigned-homework policy raises eyebrows more than any other school policy. Many assume that more homework means more education. However, we believe that overwhelming students with homework does not guarantee a good education nor does it encourage creative thought. Homework does not generate creativity, it crushes it.
However, “no homework” does not mean “no work.” Our students do their work during school hours. Each class has various assignments, such as papers, exams, presentations, and group projects. In each class, time is given for students to work on each assignment. Students are responsible for budgeting their class time to complete their projects. They may often start a project in class and then finish it at home. But we do not assign repetitive busy-work for them to trudge through at home without a teacher being present to help. If a student is struggling and requests extra help on a topic, we may suggest that remedial work be done at home, but that work will not be graded or used to penalize them if it is wrong. Jon Amos Comenius, our school’s namesake, believed that home life is as important to developing intelligence and creativity as an academic education. Sending students home with extra work is sending the message that their family and time away from school are not important. Our goal is to educate students during school hours and let home time be for the family. Field Trips At CSCL, learning is not confined to the classroom. We believe that hands-on learning and experiencing nature are important teaching tools. Students learn to think more creatively when sitting in a field of grass rather than sitting in a row of desks. Grade school students take several trips every year. Visiting a city aquarium for an overnight stay, riding on a train up to the streets of Charlotte to pray for the homeless, and traveling to the local gold mine to pan for gold are just a few of these educational adventures. Fifth grade students have traveled to New York City for their Social Studies education seeing the sights, visiting the capitol, and attending a Broadway play. As part of their Science class, our middle schoolers travel to Jekyll Island, South Carolina as well as to Williamsburg, Virginia to see firsthand the landmarks from the Revolutionary War. History comes alive as they experience the places where our colonies were established. Our high school students take various mission and aid trips, forming the trips as needs arise. When areas of West Virginia and Tennessee were flooded, we traveled to aid in relief and clean-up efforts. Yearly, we send students to the Philippines for a six-week ministry study abroad. Each year the graduating CSCL senior class concludes the academic year by traveling to Israel to experience the land of the Bible they have studied in the classroom. We wrap up their high school experience by taking them to see first-hand the places they have read about. Though these trips are fun and provide deep memories for the students, they do much more than that. By taking students outside the classroom on a regular basis, we foster a hunger for exploration and an appreciation for world cultures. Our students don’t just know about the world, they have seen it! Academic Excellence In addition to our unusual schedule and intentional ventures into nature, our school is known for academic achievement. Our high school students consistently perform better on national standardized tests than their peers in other schools. The average SAT score for CSCL students graduating in June 2013 was 1766 (the national average was 1498, and the South Carolina average was 1436). In the last three years, a CSCL student has received a National Merit Scholarship, although less than 1% of all students in the nation earn that distinction. Our graduates have not only been awarded scholarships for academics, but also for film, photography, sports, and community service. Our excellence in academics is formed around the belief that our students have more to learn than just information. We provide a place where students can grow in wisdom and learn to
hear the voice of God while they hear the voice of their teachers, building in them a strong foundation that will give them the knowledge they need to lead and succeed in the natural world as well as the power they need to move in the supernatural.