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Reaching Above and Beyond

An interview with David J. Laughlin, president of Rockhurst High School.

Could you please tell me a little bit about the history of the Rockhurst High School?

Since the beginning, back when we opened in 1914, our mission was to take the vehicle of education and help people form a society, ultimately in an effort to help make themselves successful and productive. That stands today. St. Ignatius of Loyola talked about the multiplier effect, and I think that’s still the goal of Jesuit education 500 years old later. We’re still looking out for the good in others, especially the good in others who are on the margins, who are most in need. This is a goal in all of our formational programs, it’s part of our rich tradition.

Can you tell me a little bit about the Hurtado Scholars Program?

Our larger philosophy carries into the Hurtado Scholars Program, which first began in 2013 (that initial group of scholars graduated from Rockhurst High School in 2020). It’s not simply a do-gooder kind of a thing; this is our institution stating that this is who we are, this is what’s important to us. The future leaders of our area ought to come from every sector of our city, and if these kids apply their hearts and minds and work hard to form themselves, then we would love for economics to not be a reason they don’t choose our school.

How do the scholars get matched up with your program?

We’ve partnered with our diocese and three Bright Future schools; these are Catholic elementary schools in the northeast part of Kansas City that the diocese supports financially. With the help of the Bright Future school principals, we screen the students they think might be a good fit for our program and make sure they understand the commitment they’ll need to make. It’s really the parents who need to commit, not just the students. We take about 10 students a year into the sixth-grade program, but there’s always a bit of wiggle room.

How are you preparing the students; what makes your program unique?

Our goal is to use these vital middle school years to prepare our scholars for the core basics and rigor of a college prep education. Math, reading, and language. We also look at the cultural and social components of a great education, which means getting them to Kansas City institutions like the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, for instance. We do a program with them called “Thinking Through Art” during which the students learn about art, they tour art, and then they write an essay at the beginning of the summer and again at the end about the same piece of art. But then we do a word count, and we compare the two essays. The students can really see how far they’ve come, the strides they’ve made in their ability to express their thoughts about art. This is all core preparation for prep school. It’s also confidence building.

I know you’ve had incredible outcomes with your scholars, I’m hoping you’ll share some of those with us.

The great outcomes are all due to the hard work of our students and the educators and because of the assistance of benefactors like you all. One outcome we’re particularly proud of is that in one summer, on average, a student’s reading level raise two grades. That’s remarkable. And math scores have increased too. So far, 28 Hurtado Scholars have graduated from Rockhurst High School. We have about an 80% graduation rate. Pre-pandemic, we were 95% but a number of our families with multi-generational residence held their sons from school. Unfortunately, we lost a handful of students who, like so many during those two years, never recovered. As for the number of students who move onto four-year undergraduate programs or two-year programs and technical schools, 100% of our scholars qualify; presently, about 85% are attending.

What do those numbers mean to you? Mean to your program and its future?

The program tenure data is humbling in terms of the success and it’s a credit to the families and the boys and our teachers and our benefactors because it’s working. Most of the parents of our scholars are in hourly-wage jobs, they are hardworking folks who want an education for their kid. Our goal is to help everyone who wants and qualifies for our program; we’d like to try to meet 100% of exhibited financial need. We should aspire to be available to students from all sorts of financial backgrounds. It’s inspiring to be able to say that we’ve been able to meet about 70% of exhibited need because of our resources and help from Funds like yours. But a goal, 10 years from now, after 10 years of success would be meeting all exhibited needs. We know there are other capable students in our region who just need the financial support to go to the school. My hope is that Rockhurst High School is known widely in our community as a place of academic and faith formation excellence and that finances are not the reason somebody doesn’t come to school here. My great aspirations are that the school’s excellence would be equally on par as its accessibility.

How do you think your school and the scholars program help strengthen your KC community?

I think this is a program that calls the good out in a lot of people. I think the idea of helping people’s fellow man through education is something that draws out the best in people. People want good for other people, and they want to find a place where they see that it’s happening. An uplifting. They want to give back to that. That’s where the numbers really help; we have the data to show our success. But people give with their hearts too, it’s two-fold; they give because they can see we’re changing the way our scholars imagine the possibilities of their own future and that changes the possibility of where the community can go, how it can grow, and thrive.