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Mercy SF ‘going back to our roots’ with new learning model

10 8.17.17_scott.mclarty PAGE‘I’m sick and tired of seeing Catholic schools close year after year all over the country. I don’t think we’ve been asking deeply enough and profoundly enough what it will take to be sustainable into the future and how we can more effectively educate young people.’ – Scott McLarty, Head of School, Mercy High School, San Francisco

August 17, 2017
Christina Gray

Almost 65 years after the Sisters of Mercy opened an all-girls secondary Catholic school in the Sunset, Lakeside and Park Merced districts of San Francisco, Mercy High School is “future-proofing” its legacy with new leadership and a fresh vision linked to the charism of the founding order.

“It is absolutely critical that our nation inspire young women to have a fierce determination to improve their world, because our world needs improvement,” said Scott McLarty, who was hired in June 2016 as Mercy’s first head of school following the retirement of the school’s longtime principal.

Since then, McLarty, 38, has led the development of a new educational model called Social Advocacy Based Learning, a program designed to prepare students to succeed in the age of innovation while creating social advocates in service of the common good.

The new model begins with the 2017-18 academic year.

The school’s website describes the model as a variation on the project-based learning model offered by many schools today. The Mercy model applies Catholic social teaching to projects that put into action the sisters’ five “critical concerns” of Earth, Immigration, Nonviolence, Racism and Women.

“We didn’t want to become just another (project-based learning) school,” McLarty told Catholic San Francisco. “We want all of the learning in the classroom to be intentionally related to those critical concerns.”

Mercy Sister Toni Lynn Gallagher, liaison to the high school for the sisters’ West Midwest Community, said the collaboration with the school’s new leadership is designed to bring the five concerns to life.

“Scott, the board and the Mercy Sisters are excited about the new model because we see that it is part of a new wave of learning, prompting questions and answers, not just memorization,” she said.

McLarty believes the idiom “teenagers are our future” condescends to young people, who he said can and should take part in improving the world now.

“We want to create an environment where our students learn from day one to think critically, question the status quo, and collaborate with each other and with the community in dealing with the issues that plague our time,” McLarty said. “What matters today is not just what you know but what you can do with what you know.”

McLarty has worked in Jesuit high schools in Northern and Southern California as well as in Chicago. He taught theology and religious education at the secondary level in single-gender and coeducational Jesuit schools for almost 15 years and was an adjunct professor of Catholic Studies at De Paul University in Chicago.

He said that he is unaware of any other Mercy school that uses a similar model. And though it is a big change, he considers it in many ways an “act of retrieval.”

“We are going back to our roots as a Mercy school, back to the innovative techniques that were prevalent 30, 40 years ago at the school using the technology of the day in ways that helped prepare young women for the world that they were entering,” he said.

McLarty, a doctoral candidate at the University of San Francisco’s Institute for Catholic Educational Leadership, believes Catholic schools can help “future-proof” themselves by becoming more nimble institutions.

“I’m sick and tired of seeing Catholic schools close year after year all over the country,” he said. “I don’t think we’ve been asking deeply enough and profoundly enough what it will take to be sustainable into the future and how we can more effectively educate young people.”

McLarty said it is a “very Catholic idea” to find inspiration, knowledge, technique and skill outside the world of education that is relevant to education. He borrowed from a very powerful model in the business world – the startup – to develop the new Mercy model.

Startups create a “minimally viable product” and get it out there quickly so you can learn what works and what doesn’t, he said.

“We want to create a culture at Mercy High that encourages experimentation and rapid iterations so that we can ourselves learn and so that we can model that for our students,” he said. “We’ll need to be just as adaptable or we aren’t going to be around in another 65 years.”

McLarty has been out in the Mercy community and beyond talking about Mercy High’s new vision and said “it’s proving to be very effective in all sorts of ways.”

Just after Easter, the school received the two largest single financial gifts in its history from separate anonymous donors: one for $600,000 and the other for $1.7 million. The school will translate the gifts into $1.7 million in financial assistance for lower-income students in the 2017-18 school year.

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