Academic Rigor or 360-Degree Smart?

When schools encourage only academic rigor, what do students sacrifice? An educator from Academy of the Sacred Heart shares wisdom about educating the whole child.

Schools often prioritize the academic rigor of their curriculum — and that makes sense. High academic expectations may lead to high achievement, but will academic rigor alone lead to success in college, career and life?

There’s value in a more nuanced approach to education, says Damian Hermann, Head of School at Academy of the Sacred Heart in Bloomfield Hills.

“At Sacred Heart, we prefer to think of it as 360-degree smart,” ​​Hermann says. At this independent Catholic college-preparatory school for students of all faiths, girls (infant-grade 12) and boys (infant-grade 8) engage in education that seeks to develop the whole child.

“If rigor only means academic excellence, you are not looking at the spiritual, and you are not looking at the social-emotional,” Hermann says. “If you are not looking at how students can grow from their mistakes, then that, to me, is too narrow a definition of rigor. It is not a whole child who is developing.”

Rather than chase only this relatively thin definition of rigor, parents should consider how potential schools will consistently foster their child’s growth, curiosity, citizenship and social-emotional wellness.

360-degree smart

Photo credit: Academy of the Sacred Heart

Like all Sacred Heart schools worldwide, Academy of the Sacred Heart has always focused on the whole child, even “before whole child was a trend,” says Hermann.

To achieve this, Academy of the Sacred Heart has six different learning communities — Early Childhood, Primary School, Lower School, two single-gender middle schools and a single-gender Upper School for girls. Each encompasses faith, learning, justice, community and growth in a way that is developmentally appropriate.

In early childhood, small classes encourage students to develop social-emotional and executive functioning skills, which can help accelerate children’s growth exponentially. Curiosity is vital at this age and it’s a core building block for a lifetime learner.

Primary School students have plenty of choice time to practice tactile skills, including service time and art — all while developing their foundational math and reading skills, says Hermann. This provides children with individualized learning opportunities to develop skills they’ll use throughout their education.

Academic expectations increase for second, third and fourth graders in Lower School, and they still experience plenty of opportunities to practice building relationships with peers and making choices within boundaries.

Middle schoolers continue to learn in the classroom, and opportunities to learn by doing expand. Through carefully connected experiences, students gain independence and develop critical thinking skills.

In the Upper School, students serve the larger Detroit community each week to boost confidence, encourage teamwork and foster empathy. In addition, older students take part in Project Term, a week-long hands-on service-learning experience in locations ranging from the Amazon to the West Coast to the backyards of Detroit.

By the time they graduate, students at Academy of the Sacred Heart will have experienced four of these trips, creating an impressive and unique resume that Hermann says top-tier colleges pay attention to.

Because educators at Academy of the Sacred Heart know that children are continually learning — especially through varied and meaningful out-of-the-classroom experiences — they’re confident students are developing in ways that are healthy and well-rounded.

“I don’t know of any school that intentionally structures learning around developing the whole person more than we do,” Hermann says.

Transforming the world

Photo credit: Academy of the Sacred Heart

More than 170 years after its founding, Academy of the Sacred Heart continues to push its students to develop spiritually, in addition to tackling a full plate of academic subjects.

“By the time they get to be middle schoolers, they’re pretty confident young adults,” says Hermann, adding that he has witnessed Sacred Heart students boldly tackle obstacles head-on. He says that supporting students’ ability to persevere is the right way to guide them on the path to becoming successful young adults.

“It builds confidence in their own voice. If they’re given the freedom to work through challenges and overcome obstacles, they grow confident in their abilities and voice,” Herman says.

And while he admits a bias, across his tenure working in education at various high schools, Hermann says students at Academy of the Sacred Heart are in the top 10% among their peers in the ways they engage with the world.

“When you develop your gifts and talents, and are given the freedom to make mistakes, it develops a confident person,” he adds.

While it’s important to select a school that is committed to developing the whole child, make sure it’s also a place where your child is cherished, Hermann says.

“Students only thrive if they are known and loved and feel secure in their learning environment,” he says.

Learn more about Academy of the Sacred Heart. Visit

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