The National Honor Society and National Junior Honor Society recognize outstanding students in the areas of scholarship, service, leadership, and character. Striving to achieve academic excellence and to be models of character, scholars in these organizations are exemplars both inside and outside of school communities. Last academic year, Catalyst Maria Charter School, located in one of the most poverty-stricken areas of Chicago, IL, began chapters of NHS and NJHS in hopes of providing leadership and service opportunities to a group of often underserved students.

Our school is still very new—we just this year have our first full graduating class. So, it was imperative that we start the NHS and NJHS chapters at our school as soon as we had students who could participate. Two of our advisers were NHS members in high school, and much of our previous inner-city experiences were integral to our decision to commit to urban education. These organizations have given us a window into the expectations and opportunities of the collegiate landscape, as well as a voice and a chance to be change agents within our communities.

A Unique Perspective

Catalyst Maria’s student demographic is 50 percent Latino and 50 percent African-American. Moreover, 97 percent of students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch. Given this context and setting, the students of Catalyst Maria face many challenges both inside and outside the classroom. Despite these challenges, the kids have found ways to be leaders in their school and neighborhood communities through NHS and NJHS.

Catalyst Maria is a K–12 school, which means NJHS and NHS are in the same building. This provides unique opportunities for scholars of different grade levels to build mentoring and tutoring relationships and to engage in joint service projects. In addition, it allows the older scholars to model what is possible to achieve in the final years before attending college.

Middle School Students Find Their Voice

At the middle school level, students are encouraged to think beyond their classrooms and set goals for their future. As a way of reinforcing these dreams, NJHS members took a tour of downtown Chicago and Loyola University (also in Chicago). The objective was for students to begin thinking about what the college experience may look like for them, and to see a side of their city they often are not exposed to. The tour, led by top Loyola students, heightened their excitement about the variety of classes, activities, and access that the university could offer them. While these students were only in middle school, they were asking college students tough questions about their classes, leadership roles, and service, and how those experiences have shaped them as leaders. This experience inspired our students to organize future college trips and motivate more middle school students to think beyond the classroom.

To advisers wishing to organize similar experiences for their students, our advice would be to coordinate the visit with admissions offices. Network to find personal connections with students or faculty at local colleges to personalize the experience. We found that when we reached out to area schools and explained our hopes for our students, the universities were more than welcoming. Prepare your students for these visits by encouraging them to do research and brainstorm questions so they get an experience authentic to their dreams.

In addition to a focus on their future success, students at Catalyst Maria are encouraged to take ownership of their leadership in NJHS. In fact, our first service event was organized through a student’s personal passion for the Special Olympics. Sofia Salazar, an eighth grader, says, “The Special Olympics service event was our organization’s very first service event. We volunteered with McGuane Park in Chicago at their annual bocce ball game and bake sale fundraiser. The members who attended learned about the game and got to interact with the participants who had disabilities. We had a great time and hope to be involved in more events like this soon.”

We soon learned that when we released responsibility to the students, they felt valued and became more invested in NJHS. As advisers, especially as founders of this organization, we were reluctant to release control to the students in brainstorming and planning events. However, this event and subsequent service opportunities showed us that giving students ownership motivates them to give and do their best, surpassing all expectations we may have had for them.

Catalyst Maria’s NJHS President Nancy Flores, also an eighth grader, has not only served as a model for others, but has learned a lot herself. “Since I’ve been in NJHS, my grades and my leadership have improved fantastically,” she says. “I’ve learned how to talk in front of a big crowd … I’ve learned that not just my grades, but also my personality and behavior in and out of school matter. Being in NJHS has made me have a better relationship with my peers and my teachers. Everything I’m learning in NJHS I will need for my future. I especially loved our visit to Loyola University in Chicago, where we took a specialized tour and met with college students. NJHS will keep leading me in the right direction.” Flores’ leadership provides just a snapshot of the opportunities NJHS has been able to provide to students that offer them a voice in a school system that often leaves them disadvantaged.

High School Students Commit to Service and Excellence

At the high school level, National Honor Society was a very new concept—most teachers in the building were shocked that students had not heard of it before when it was such a tradition at the high schools the teachers had attended. Sasha Fawaz, the current adviser, brought the qualifying students together for a meeting to talk about the honor of being selected and inducted into NHS. She also outlined that the goal as students was to model excellence and commit to service. Several students remarked that as residents of the south side of Chicago, they had only been recipients of service and did not realize that they had anything to offer others. By bringing stakeholders and interested parties together, NHS was able to develop authentically and create collective ownership and responsibility within the school community.

We learned that by providing various volunteer and college preparation opportunities and listening to the passions of our students, the students wanted to get involved and always went above and beyond in their participation. To advisers looking to create similar investment, listen to your students and give them ownership in the creation process of a new chapter. Then, once a chapter is created, listen to them as you plan events to harness their enthusiasm for the common good of your school and larger community.

Our chapter’s secretary, Leslie Moreira, writes: “Having the chance to participate in NHS is amazing. Coming from a low-income neighborhood, opportunities like this program are rare. I am fortunate to be part of the Catalyst Maria National Honor Society, and it will forever leave a mark on my high school memories.” Leslie has been accepted to 15 colleges and has been offered several scholarships. Her success has taught us that our students have the potential within them, and as advisers, we must provide them access and support to pursue those opportunities.

Empowering Student Potential

We want our students to identify where their greatest passion intersects with their community’s greatest need, and have the opportunities to realize their own potential in making a positive change around them. We plan to continue connecting our students to the opportunities that higher education can provide by organizing more college visits, holding discussions with current college students, and participating in service opportunities aimed to elevate their leadership experiences and skills. In this way, we hope to open their eyes to their futures and prepare them for the rigor, collaboration, and engagement that come at the college level.

We encourage others hoping to open up chapters at their schools, particularly schools in areas of high needs, to start the conversation with their students and families and begin networking within their community to find service partners. We hope our scholars continue their commitment to service and that it drives them to return to Chicago and empower others in the same way NHS and NJHS have empowered them. —

Sidebar: Start a Chapter

Looking to start an Honor Society chapter in your school? Here’s how in just three easy steps:

  1. Prepare to Apply
    Lay the groundwork for your chapter by reviewing the NHS or NJHS constitution, selecting a chapter adviser, and appointing a faculty council.
  2. Complete a New Chapter Application
    Visit or to apply.
  3. Get Ready to Begin
    Once your chapter is approved, you will receive welcome materials,the NHS or NJHS Handbook, and access to member-only portions of or Use these resources to help your chapter develop

Kelly Bies is a middle level writing teacher and adviser for NJHS at Catalyst Maria Charter School in Chicago.
Sasha Fawaz is director of postsecondary success at Catalyst Maria.
Johanna Johnson is a high school chemistry teacher and NHS adviser at Catalyst Maria.
Mara Lewis is an eighth-grade math teacher and NJHS adviser at Catalyst Maria.