The Brilla High School Readiness Program: Cultivating the Cardinal Courage To Be Prepared for Excellence in Life

This article is written by Mr. Christopher Matesic, Director of High School Readiness at Brilla College Preparatory Middle School (BCPM). Mr. Matesic describes Brilla’s efforts to prepare its inaugural eighth grade class for excellence in high school, college, and beyond.

Our newly-minted High School Readiness Program is based on two key components of Brilla’s model: character and culture. When I came to Brilla to interview in the Spring of 2019, I was immediately moved by the culture of love that I witnessed. It was clear to me that, with the love in the Brilla community, we could collectively build a world-class High School Readiness Program. I also knew that High School Readiness would need to begin with our core virtue of courage. The etymology of the word courage is taken from the latin root of cor, meaning heart. At the heart of every scholar, there is the potential to source passionate learning and empower agency to flourish in life. In collaboration with all stakeholders, our High School Readiness Program aims to guide scholars to cultivate the courage to develop their potential. Our eighth graders are well poised to develop “Cardinal Courage” (as we call it) thanks to the education they’ve received at Brilla, which emphasizes character as much as academics. Brilla’s Character Initiatives and partnership with El Camino Extended Day Faith Formation Program support our scholars in accessing their inherent character strengths and are crucial partners in preparing our scholars for high school. 

BCPM Art teacher Mr. Pisacano leads a group of scholars interested in art on a field trip.
Mr. Matesic, the author of this article, hosts an information sessions for families.

The first and most important partners in this process are families. Starting as young as fifth grade, we work with families to support scholars to activate what they are passionate about. What type of activities do they naturally choose to engage in simply because they enjoy it? We then design a differentiated program for each scholar to bring this enriching expression to a high school level of proficiency. For example, if you love to draw, then you are working with Mr. Pisacano, our Art Lead at BCPM, to create a portfolio for entrance into an art-and-design high school program. Twenty-four eighth grade scholars are applying to some of the finest Catholic and private secondary schools in the country, under the guidance of Mr. Sayer, our 8th grade humanities teacher and High School Placement Coordinator, and me. From Phillips Exeter in New Hampshire to Cristo Rey in Spanish Harlem, our scholars are inspired to spread their Cardinal Wings. 

What does it mean to have a world-class High School Readiness Program at Brilla? Hearing about the experience of Mr. Yatabarry, our fifth grade team lead and science teacher, gave me some insights. Mr. Yatabarry grew up in the Bronx. In middle school, Mr. Yatabarry worked with a teacher to prepare for the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT). Thanks to his hard work, Mr. Yatabarry secured a spot at Brooklyn Tech, one of the eight specialized high schools in NYC, where over 30,000 of the best 8th grade scholars annually compete for one 4,000 grade seats. Mr. Yatabarry then went on to graduate from a competitive college. We aim to do the same for our scholars: equip them with the tools they need to achieve their dreams. Kordell Scott, current eighth grader and reigning Cardinal of the Year, has a vision of going to MIT to learn how to create accessible technology that will make Mott Haven a better place to live. He has been working intensively within our SHSAT Training Program, led by Mr. Joseph, eighth grade Mathlete Coach and Algebra teacher. Kordell has cultivated the courage to be excellent and wants to place at a high school that is going to support him to reach his long-term goals. As an alum of a NYC specialized high school myself, I have full confidence that Kordell will achieve this dream.

BCPM Algebra teacher Mr. Joseph leads a SHSAT Training Session.

Thanks to the leadership of Principal, Mr. Larsen, and Chief Academic Officer, Mr. Carbone, our eighth graders are participating in Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID), a national program which has been training scholars for 40 years in being prepared for excellence in high school, college and beyond. Every day, eighth grade scholars participate in an intervention block where they self-select into a Passion Pod, led by one of the 8th grade teachers. In these Passion Pods, scholars receive valuable support that will assist them in navigating the transition to high school. Passion Pods can cover anything from academic skills to professional mentoring. For example, Mrs. Ziskin, one of our 8th grade ELA teachers, mentors a small group of scholars that are passionate about varied expressions in the creative arts, like movie making. 

In addition, eighth grade scholars write a Strategic High School Application Plan (SHSAP). By cultivating the courage to create their future and designing their own high school placement plan, our 8th graders are earning their Cardinal wings. I will leave you with a quote from my favorite author that sums up the core ethos of the Brilla High School Readiness Program:“Courage is not something that you already have that makes you brave when the tough times start. Courage is what you earn when you’ve been through the tough times and you discover they aren’t so tough after all” (Malcolm Gladwell, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants).

About the Author: Christopher Matesic is the founding Director of High School Readiness at Brilla College Prep Middle School. He joins Brilla with over eighteen years of professional experience in supporting students in character development, college readiness and secondary school placement. He graduated from Hunter College with a BA in international relations and a minor in history. He holds a masters in transpersonal psychology from Sofia University with a concentration in spirituality. Outside of school, Mr. Matesic likes to spend time with his family, travel, be at the beach and play basketball.

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