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100 Years of School at Boys Town

From Father Flanagan to the Boys Town Education Model: 100 Years of Boys Town Schools and Teaching Philosophy

September 17, 2019     By Boys Town Contributor

Boys Town History, Boys Town Model, Father Flanagan, Family Home Program, School

In 1919, Boys Town opened its first organized school for the boys in its care. The boys had been receiving some level of educational instruction since the Home was founded two years earlier. But the first school provided a more structured approach to helping them learn the basics of "reading, writing and 'rithmetic."

One hundred years later, the teaching philosophy Boys Town founder Father Edward Flanagan introduced in that first school remains as the foundation of Boys Town's middle school and high school, and the education training the Home shares with teachers and administrators across the country.   

"Father Flanagan firmly believed that if you wanted true, long-lasting learning, it can best be done through kindness, care and concern and not through fear of pain and punishment," said Scott Hartman, Senior Director of National Training Services at Boys Town.

One of Father Flanagan's biggest influences in the education area was Saint John Bosco (1815-1888), who worked with troubled young men and boys on the streets of Italy. At one point, Bosco had more than 800 youth in his care.

As he worked with these young people, Bosco came to realize that yelling, threatening and using physical punishment did not help them learn, and only made things worse for him and those he was trying to help. "I cannot threaten to make a difference," Bosco once said.     

What did work was building relationships with these young people though kindness and compassion. Bosco also believed it was important to teach children a vocation, a trade where they could use their hands and their minds to contribute and give back to society. And one day a week, he taught the youth social skills because he believed they should be able to solve problems and get along with others.

"Bosco believed a friendly, charitable approach was necessary and sufficient," Hartman said. "His method of teaching was based in love and charity."

Father Flanagan embraced Bosco's teaching philosophy. From his study of juvenile justice and his experience working with troubled youth, the priest developed his famous saying: "There are no bad boys. There is only bad environment, bad training, bad example, bad thinking." 

Like Bosco, Father Flanagan included teaching social skills and vocational instruction in the education he offered to the troubled and at-risk boys in his care. Both men firmly believed there was no place for physical punishment in teaching, and that more could be accomplished through love and kindness. They both thought teachers should know their students and students should know their teachers – and know that their teachers cared. Finally, both believed that every young person possessed inherent goodness and was blessed with his or her own unique gifts.        

"Bosco and Flanagan taught teachers they were there to serve the young people," Hartman said. "Students were not there to serve the teachers."

Over the past several decades, this philosophy of educating young people was formalized in what is now known as the Boys Town Education Model®. The Model serves as the basis of learning in Boys Town schools, as well as the many education training programs Boys Town provides to schools nationwide. Those programs provide teachers, administrators and other school staff with techniques and methods for improving student behavior and academic performance by creating a positive learning environment in the classroom and the entire school building.

With Boys Town's unique approach to educating children, learning of all kinds can be an ongoing experience for students and school staff everywhere. 

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