JSerra High School’s Identity Formation Program

It has never been easy to be a teenager. Radical physical and emotional changes compounded by the reality of growing responsibilities and the stress of fitting in, combined with unpredictable relational drama all amidst the very real limitations of an under-developed frontal lobe— it’s no wonder young people can’t wait to move on from high school and begin college. 

Yet even as we acknowledge that these struggles have been part of the adolescent landscape for many generations, we must admit the teens we are raising and educating today face a cornucopia of difficulties we and our parents never imagined. So we need to ask: How do Catholic high schools make sure we are doing all we can to give our students the tools they need to navigate the world they are living in and to tackle the unique trials they are facing (and will continue to face upon graduation) with courage, confidence, and commitment to their core principles?

Seven years ago, JSerra dove deeply into this question. Our answer, albeit imperfect, was an initiative we call Identity Formation.

Recognizing that the main task of adolescence is identity development, and in order to help our students not only confront today’s unique challenges well but become young men and women of life-long faith, intellect, and character, we decided we needed more time for conversation about their culture and its social and moral tripwires. Science, conventional wisdom, and experience told us these conversations would best take place in smaller groups and that they would be most fruitful in a single-sex environment. 

We decided to break students into smaller, single-sex sub-groups of their theology classes once a quarter for Identity Formation. A diverse team of staff including two vice principals, a vice president, three school therapists, a dean of students, two theology teachers, two coaches, and a history teacher began to meet regularly to plan out the curriculum and run the quarterly sessions, which each lasts the length of a normal class period. 

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Our curriculum has evolved over the past seven years, but the basic foundations have remained the same:

  • Freshmen Year: Dignity and Identity (Human dignity, Adolescent Development, Building Solid Friendships, Mental Health and Suicidality)
  • Sophomore Year: Relationships (Loving difficult family and friends, Parties and Alcohol, Healthy cell phone use, Dating)
  • Junior Year: Managing Work, Stress, and Responsibility (Stress and Anxiety, Drugs and THC, Masculinity and Femininity, Sexual activity and STD’s)
  • Senior Year: Life Purpose and the Big Decisions (Life’s Purpose, The Meaning of Sex, Preparation for College Life 1, Preparation for College Life 2)

Themes are flexible and take shape year to year, often in response to real-time student needs and current cultural phenomena, but the basic foundations have remained the same. The goal of each session is to have a conversation, hopefully an open discussion, about the realities our young people are confronting, the pressures they are facing, and the obstacles they are encountering that prevent them from being truly themselves and living out the ideal Christian values they, their families, and our school hold dear. 

The good news is that once rapport is built between the presenter and the class, students are wont to open up. Over the years we have continued to repeat the same themes to students as a way to anchor them in enduring concepts the Church knows are keys to living a fulfilling human life: 

  • We find our dignity in being sons and daughters of God; 
  • Who we are is more important than what we do for a living; 
  • True happiness is found in virtue; 
  • Suffering has more meaning than meets the eye; 
  • We become the best versions of ourselves by living for others.

Periodically we send home a list of follow-up questions to parents so they can keep the Identity Formation conversation going at home. Parents have told us Identity Formation is one of the most important initiatives we offer as a school. 

It is not perfect, and we are always finding ways to improve it, but for our money, our parents are right. 

About JSerra Catholic High School

JSerra Catholic High School is a private, Catholic, 9-12 school in San Juan Capistrano, California. JSerra’s leaders, President Rich Meyer and Vice President for Faith and Mission, Pat Reidy, were founding members of Duc In Altum Schools Collaborative.

Named after Saint Junípero Serra, the school’s mission aligns with that of its patron who devoted his life to promoting faith and education through the founding of various missions along the coast of California during the 18th century.

Founded in 2003, the first class enrolled 156 students. From there, the dedicated staff and administration worked tirelessly to develop innovative and exceptional academic programs, including advanced placement (AP) classes and honors courses. Through positive word-of-mouth, enrollment quadrupled within the first three years.

JSerra now serves nearly 1300 students, has five acclaimed Magnet Programs in medicine, engineering, business, law, and the arts as well as online educational options. 

The school offers students 25 CIF sports and 6 club teams from which to choose — each fostering mental, physical and spiritual development. 

Both visual and performing arts are also well-represented on campus. From an innovative broadcast journalism program to multiple theatrical productions, from an after-school rock band to award-winning choirs, students have the opportunity to explore the beauty and truth of God’s creation in a variety of ways.

Presently, the JSerra community continues to grow and flourish as its students and alumni become leaders in their families, neighborhoods, churches, and professional communities.