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    • The Main Building of Sacred Heart Schools

Ensuring the Strongest Heart

Dr. James Everitt & Dr. Ben Su
Per founder’s direction, SHS community, practices, and policies evolve with the times
It is often understood that St. Madeleine Sophie Barat intended on starting an international system of schools with the hope of transforming the world through her unique approach to education. But, like many other histories, the story is a bit more complicated than we sometimes relay.  

For her time, Madeleine Sophie Barat had a unique insight into God. Despite the tumultuous events that surrounded her life in pre- and post-Revolutionary France, she experienced and believed in a generous and loving God, revealed in the tenderness of the pierced heart of Christ. This vision resulted in her desire to gather a group of young women “to adore the Heart of Jesus.” In due course, and for many reasons, Sophie founded her own school “system” - for every school she opened for daughters of wealthy families, Sophie simultaneously committed the Society to education for children who were unable to afford private schooling. These early days of her “free schools” for the children of the local village where a boarding school was also located, reveal an intuition about social justice that the Religious of the Sacred Heart have prioritized for the past several decades, and which ultimately led to the birth of the same Sacred Heart education we know today. In each generation that has followed, the Sisters have responded to the “signs of the times” and the “needs of the day” by revealing the love of God’s Heart in the actual circumstances of our world. It is fair to say that the Society has been on a journey into the Heart of Christ from the moment that Sophie’s vision of God became the source of her life.  

In 2000, following their General Assembly, the Society published a document describing transformative education in the Sacred Heart tradition.  Twenty years ago, the Society provided clear direction for Network Schools to take up all forms of social justice education, including racial justice.  The Society’s call for a new way of thinking about how we deliver Sophie’s vision in a contemporary context began Atherton’s “journey to the heart.”  Our journey has been one of imagining how we could better address diversity, equity, access, and inclusion in its many forms. The Board of Trustees in 2004 adopted a statement on equity, justice, and multicultural education that called on the school to address issues of access and multiculturalism so that all Sacred Heart students would thrive and “find fulfillment in God.” Since the adoption of the statement, the school has implemented many programs to broaden access and provide support for students. Through a robust financial aid program, non-tuition-related financial assistance, and our multi-tiered Sophie’s Scholars Program, SHS has become a school that represents greater socioeconomic, ethnic, and cultural diversity than ever before. Currently, 50% of the SHS student body racially self-identifies as something other than Caucasian; the ethnic makeup of the school more clearly represents the diversity of Silicon Valley.

The changes in the student body have also brought more attention to the benefits of diversity and the challenges of addressing issues of structured inequalities like sexism and racism. The murder of George Floyd and the social upheaval that followed in the spring and summer of 2020 provided an excellent opportunity for the school to evaluate the progress we have made and the work that remains for us to be a school that lives up to our noble mission. As a result, the Board of Trustees in November 2020 adopted a resolution on racial justice that has called the entire community to reject racism in all its forms and address any programs, policies, and practices that may reinforce a sense of privilege or preference. Guided by Catholic social teaching, the U.S. Bishops and Vatican statements on racism, and the Society’s commitment to eradicating racism in all of its ministries and institutions, the school has begun a multi-year process of evaluating current programs and policies, designing and implementing new ones and engaging the larger community in meaningful conversations related to justice, inequities (perceived and actual), and community inclusivity as a whole.  

Two primary advisory groups were created to help us in this work: the Goal IV Steering Committee and the Racial Justice Task Force. Composed of senior leadership, teacher and staff representatives, and the chair of the Board’s Strategic Planning and Evaluation Committee, the Goal IV Steering Committee meets monthly during the school year. This group is charged to vet school policies and practices; to provide feedback to school leadership on issues of diversity, equity, access, and inclusion; and to drive all initiatives related to the work of inclusion. An offshoot of the Goal IV Committee, the Racial Justice Task Force (RJTF) comprises another cross-sectional group of SHS community members, and was initiated to receive and respond to feedback submit to the school by families, alumni, faculty, and others following the Floyd case and subsequent events. Now in its second year, the RJTF is researching various approaches to racial justice in education and will begin rolling out initiatives in the coming months. The group’s overarching goal is to help inform and guide the school in its intent that “race or ethnicity does not determine our students’ ability to thrive at SHS.”  

In August 2021, Dr. Ben Su was announced as the school’s director of diversity, equity, inclusion, and access (DEIA). An experienced Sacred Heart educator at both Stuart Hall in San Francisco and our own Atherton campus, Dr. Su has a deep appreciation for and commitment to our educational philosophy. His own extensive education and professional expertise in cross-cultural settings and roles are helping him lead the school’s renewed efforts to ensure SHS is a place in which each person is valued, cared for, and respected. Currently, Dr. Su is working with campus-wide leadership teams, helping them develop DEIA proficiency and facilitate the implementation of the RJTF initiatives approved by the Goal IV Steering Committee.

As we continue to move forward in more fully manifesting our mission and in creating a more just community and world, it will be important both to honor our past and to respond to the challenges and understandings that we now encounter. Although our founders articulated and pursued a profound vision, they were also shaped by the belief systems and structures of their times. Thus, even as we serve as caretakers of their mission, we must also acknowledge, grow from, and seek to rectify the ways in which they—and we—may have fallen short. As Madeleine Sophie Barat attests, “Times change and we must change with them.”

In honoring their founder’s words, the RSCJ have provided us with a powerful example. Reflecting on their complicity in racial injustices, they affirm, “While we continue to work with the descendants of those enslaved women, children and men who built the foundation of Sacred Heart education in the United States, we are now working to help transform on-going racist attitudes and behaviors within ourselves and within those communities and institutions that bear our name” (“On-Going Work of Reconciliation”). Their statement reminds us that we should not cling to a narrow, purely celebratory view of our history or be disabled by denial or shame. Rather, we most fully honor a tradition when we further that tradition and even surpass the dreams of its original dreamers. Just as we hope that our young people will one day surpass us in their understandings and abilities, we must also continue to grow in our commitment and love. As the RSCJ also reminds us, this task “begins with an honest examination of how we may be complicit to the very structures that we work to transform” (“Artisans of Hope”).
For these reasons, we must continually both reexamine the work we have already begun and expand the scope of our vision. While our racial/ethnic demographics increasingly reflect those of our immediate communities, demographic diversity is a partial step; a diversity of people must also lead to a diversity of perspectives and values. Those of us whose backgrounds have more closely aligned with the majority culture of our school have often felt embraced, but we also now know that some of us have not as consistently felt our belonging. In addition, while the RSCJ and our school have long-standing, evolving commitments to racial, socio-economic, and gender equity and while our school has built a strong reputation for serving students with learning differences, our support of the LGBTQ+ members of our community has been less explicit. Thus, our commitment to the safety, belonging, and flourishing of all people must not only deepen but also widen. As Madeleine Sophie Barat enjoins us, “All of us have difficulties and trials, and God means us to make these lighter for others by our interest and loving concern.” We all share in the responsibility of guaranteeing that every person in our community is supported and knows that they are beloved.

This ongoing, systematic work calls upon us to understand how our current and past approaches may have benefited some while unintentionally neglecting others. Thus, we will need to create further opportunities to hear from all members, especially those whose voices may not yet have been prioritized. We will need to see the work of justice and equity not as ancillary or as interventions but as integral to our Mission—as the very foundation of how we teach and nurture our young people, as well as support all individuals within our community. We will need to focus on expanding shared understandings, just structures, and consistent processes that increasingly serve us all. 

Thankfully, much of this work is already underway across our school’s divisions, departments, and committees—whether through considerations of curricula and pedagogy, more-equitable assessment, restorative practices and culture, processes to report and respond to inequity, or hiring and retention practices. 

As always, our attempts at love, like the many efforts of those who have come before us, will be incomplete, but we find comfort and inspiration in knowing that we have received and are carrying forward a meaningful tradition—“for the sake of one child,” meant for every one of our children.

Sacred Heart Schools Atherton

Sacred Heart Schools, Atherton

150 Valparaiso Ave
Atherton, CA 94027
650 322 1866
Founded by the Society of the Sacred Heart, SHS is a Catholic, independent, co-ed day school for students in preschool through grade 12