Summary of today’s show: Tom Nunan and Mary Grassa O’Neill join Scot and Susan Abbott to discuss the newest Catholic high school in the Archdiocese of Boston – St Joseph Preparatory High School. Tom, as the Head of School, explains his hopes and dreams for this merger of Mount Saint Joseph and Trinity High Schools, and how he hopes they will grow and educate in the future.
Listen to the show:
Today’s host(s): Scot Landry and Susan Abbott
Today’s guest(s): Tom Nunan and Mary Grassa O’Neill
Links from today’s show:
Today’s topics: New school profile: St Joseph Preparatory High School
1st segment: Scot welcomed Susan back for a non-Thursday show – Susan said that with back to school happening, the beginning of the year shouldn’t be January 1st but rather Labor Day! Scot said that Catholic schools are a central part of the Archdiocese’s mission, and welcomed Thomas Nunan, the Head of School of the newest Catholic high school in the Archdiocese, St Joseph Preparatory High School, and Mary Grassa O’Neill, Superintendent of Schools and Secretary for Education for the Archdiocese of Boston. Scot asked Tom to give a snapshot of St Joseph Prep. Tom explained St Joseph Prep was formed on the tradition and legacy of Mount St Joseph Academy for girls in Brighton and Trinity Catholic High School in Newtown. What’s fascinating, Tom said, is that the Sisters of St Joseph are engaged not only with the new St Joseph Prep but were the sponsors of Mount St Joseph and a vital part of Trinity Catholic. Tom concluded by saying that while the sisters have several sponsored ministry, having the sisters a stone’s throw from the motherhouse and being joined by five sisters on the faculty is healthy for all. Scot asked how many students are enrolled in the new freshman class – Tom replied that the enrollment is approximately 280 students. While the freshman class is a bit smaller than before, Tom continued, it was recruited by people who didn’t work for a school that didn’t yet exist! The senior class is more than 90 students this year, and Tom said they have been blessed by contributions by the administrative team to create good classes all around.
Scot asked Tom to talk about the priorities since he was named this past April, especially considering there is so much history between the two communities. Tom said he was hired during Holy Week, and they think of themselves as an Easter people with the new schools in a very real way. Tom explained the only other option from combining was to lose both schools, but there is tremendous new hope with the school’s combination and re-opening. Taking a tour of the building was an interesting start, Tom said, and finding things like a bathtub on the 5th floor of the building by the library. Other challenges have been setting up master schedules for all the students, figuring out what the mailing address of the school is (they are 30 yards into Boston rather than Brighton), and most importantly putting the people in place. Tom concluded by saying that any institution relies heavily on its people, so they’ve put much time and prayer into finding the right faculty, staff, and administrative teams – about one third from Mt St Joseph, a third from Trinity Catholic, and a third new faculty members from as far as California and as close as down the street in Brighton.
The mascot for the new school’s sports, Scot said, is a phoenix. Tom explained that the students from both schools got together at a workshop at Boston College in the spring for team building, and one exercise was to pick a mascot. Tom said he usually says three things about the phoenix: first, the bird comes out of the ashes of a funeral pyre of it’s own making; second, it is a resurrection symbol, sometimes our own views and timelines forget that loss and suffering have the last word and the phoenix shows that isn’t quite the case; third, legend says there can only be one phoenix at any time in history. Tom explained each faculty member and student should feel they are unique and called to be at the school at that very time.
2nd segment: Scot commented that what Tom is going through at St Joseph Prep is not necessarily unique in the world of Catholic schools today – some schools are hanging on the edge of being viable. Mary said the first thing the Catholic Schools Office looks for schools to be excellent in faith formation, academics, and financial practices. Scot said over the last few years at the Archdiocese many grade schools have combined and come together for excellence, and asked Mary about the planning process for something like this. Mary replied that a strong leader, like Tom, is critical to facilitate the transition. The leader must understand first the Catholic part of Catholic schools, strive for excellence in education, have a strong sponsor, and recruit strong partners. Mary commented that Tom has facilitated partnerships with Boston College, major donors, and even an international program to recruit students from around the world. Mary expressed confidence that St Joseph Prep, under Tom’s leadership, will produce well-formed and well-educated young adults. She also explained that this was one of the first high school integrations. Announcing the merge a year ahead of time allowed for planning and allowed students and parents to be brought further into the process.
Scot asked Tom what he took away from his time on the board of Trinity Catholic Academy in Brockton. Tom replied that he learned a vibrant, active, thoughtful and engaged board is important, from recruitment to fiscal sustainability. Catholic schools need partners of many kinds, and board members can provide those partnerships Tom said. Scot mentioned that many people seek excellence, and that Tom is leaving St Sebastian in Needham, a school many people consider very excellent. Tom replied that he was attracted by the excitement of opening a new school, first – it’s like working at a start-up company, sitting around a giant conference table planning to get a school going. The second thing Tom said attracted him to St Joseph Prep is the opportunity and even obligation to provide the same excellence St Sebastian’s offers into the heart of Boston. The third thing Tom said he finds exciting about opening the new school is a new challenge to provide education to students and the challenge of bringing people together around the table.
Scot asked what Tom has done since he was hired in April to get ready for the new school and new school year. Tom answered that he has a very “people first” approach, responding to email and phone calls from parents to acknowledge that a school is a partnership between parents and the faculty. Tom said he also tries to keep his focus on the high goal, to serve parents and students always and everywhere. The only reason the school exists, Tom said, is the students. The school is not about the adults (parents, faculty, staff, or administrators), but about the students they serve and nurture. When people come to the table at St Joseph Prep, Tom said, they will see a level of professionalism and care that no other school has ever offered them before. Scot asked how Tom plans to inspire school pride, which is an important part of the culture of St Sebastian’s. Tom said that students have told him they want what every student should want – meaningful assignments, challenging and invested teachers, a positive morale, a nurturing community. This starts with a culture in the faculty, Tom said, teaching from bell to bell, putting up on the board what the objective is for the day, and implementing best practices for teaching.
3rd segment: Susan asked Tom about the challenges of moving from a single gender school at Mt St Joseph. She commented that both she and Mary are the product of single gender schools, and have spoken about how meaningful that experience was. Tom said coming from 27 years of an all-boys school to a merger with a school that is all girls is an interesting change! He explained that his initial response is that he has a teenage daughter who will be a senior in high school, so he does have some experience with girls that age in education. The first mission of preparing students for college is mostly gender blind in his opinion, Tom said, and that the new school will be opening with almost 65% girls in the school. There was an argument a long time ago about girls not taking advantage of the opportunities for leadership and more that schools offered if boys were in the same classes. Tom said he does appreciate the argument, but any guidance counselor these days will say it is harder to get girls into colleges than boys because their grades tend to be stronger, resumes more complete, and GPAs higher. Tom expressed confidence in the incoming senior class, and that they’ll put St Joseph Prep on the map with their college placements. He hopes that the student body is able to take advantage of all the benefits of co-educational rather than single-sex education, even though retreats and such might be separated.
Susan mentioned that Tom has had involvement in theater before, and asked what arts programs might carry over from the two schools. Tom said that Mt St Joseph had a strong theater tradition they hope to continue, and that freshmen and sophomores will have fine arts courses built in. Eventually, Tom said, the hope is to prepare students to take the AP Studio Art exam, which involves a significant amount of work preparing a portfolio.
Scot said there are many parents who struggle with the decision of where their child should go to high school. Mary said that students at Catholic high schools are expected and have proved themselves as better candidates for better colleges, as well as have been formed into good Catholic young adults. Students perform community service, learn about their faith, and give back to others. Studies from Notre Dame have shown that Catholic school students vote more often, are more involved in their community, and are more stand-up citizens. Tom added that integrity is another critical part of the St Joseph Prep mission – they ought to be taught by people of high moral character in order to become people of high moral character. Blessed John Paul II said that young people don’t learn from teachers, Tom continued, but they learn from witnesses.
Scot asked Tom to provide some stats on the student body for the upcoming year at St Joseph Prep. Tom said they represent neighborhoods from West Roxbury to Hyde Park to Melrose and even around the corner in Brighton. Economically, the diversity is wide as well – families who are partnered with foundations who can reduce tuition down to only $1,000, and some who have no financial aid. In four years, Tom said he would like to grow the student body from the 280 or so that it is now to upwards of 400 students, where everybody could know everybody else’s name in the school. This will also help with the structuring of the long-term financial planning, and encourage foundation partners to invest in the school as well as parishes and families. Right now, Tom said, there are about 50 international students with host families in the area, and he’d like to see students continue to come from all over Boston and all over the world.
Susan pointed out that parents are sometimes scared by the idea that they are the primary educator of their children, and that what she hears from Tom about St Joseph Prep’s model of welcoming parents is a fantastic way to involve parents in the pivotal years for their children’s formation. If you can partner with a school who shares your values, Susan said, the odds are a lot better that the child will be a better formed, happy, and holy adult. Tom replied that he’s been in high school education for most of his adult life, and people tend worry about dangerous places in high school – parties, gangs, and worse. But at the same time, Tom said, it is just as bad to be alone. St Joseph Prep will constantly strive, he said, to be a place where no one is alone. Another piece that they talked about their faculty meeting last week, Tom said, is no more “them,” only us. “Us includes everyone” is the new mantra among faculty, staff, and students.