A Classical Approach to Education Coupled with a Practice of Caring for Others is a Tried and True Philosophy at St. Mary Schools
It’s pretty easy to get excited about the St. Mary School System when you sit down with Eleanor Spry. Her overt enthusiasm and obvious devotion to her work as the Director of the St. Mary system permeates every aspect of the conversation. Now in her fifth year at the system, this administrator is a believer, particularly in a small school education. “Research shows small schools graduate students who succeed,” she says.
While St. Mary is a Catholic school that thrives on faith-based education, Eleanor is quick to point out “faith-based” is about more than a belief system. “It’s really about a holistic approach to education,” she says. “In terms of faith, it’s about a way of life that is based on service and caring about others and the transformation that comes from that practice.”
It’s clear St. Mary is succeeding. The 2017 graduating class averaged a 25 ACT composite test score, an overall five points above the state average. Last year, 100 percent of St. Mary students made the leap to post-secondary education with $96,000 in scholarship dollars offered on average per student. Overall, the system experienced a 4.5 percent enrollment increase this year over last. “The joy and uniqueness of St. Mary is that our teachers come to really know their students and are able to spend the quality time necessary to help them reach their full potential,” Eleanor explains. St. Mary is unique in its size which allows most all St. Mary students to find their niche; athletes are usually involved in more than one sport. The school boasts a strong orchestra, a growing drama department, and a burgeoning business program. “We specialize in graduating well-rounded students, and that happens because our small size allows leadership role opportunities to present themselves regularly to a large percentage of our students.”
After working many years in the public school system, Eleanor is keenly aware of the guidelines in state schools that mandate the separation of religion from education. “We don’t have to walk that line at St. Mary, she says. “We can easily speak of faith and tie it into content. For example, we can explain how faith is woven into science, history, and literature. It’s exciting to think how much overlap there really is. Our faith has really shaped us as a society and as a country.”
The tradition of a classical education and scholastic achievement are strong at St. Mary, and Eleanor relishes the environment that it creates. “There is something to be said about making a choice for education,” she says. “St. Mary is a place where students really want to succeed. Not only is there a top down push for excellence, there’s also expectation placed on the staff. Kids here want to be challenged.”
When asked what she’s most proud of at St. Mary, this animated administrator turns quietly pensive. After a thoughtful pause, she answers, “I’d have to say I’m most proud that our students live their faith, and sometimes that’s difficult. Sometimes they fail; they’re human. Even those who are not necessarily Catholic or of a particular religion still live the faith practices that we teach: works of mercy and serving others are instilled in them. Because it’s not just about them. It’s about each other, family, and community.” She adds, “Their hearts are changed when they leave here. And changed for the better.”
ST. MARY STUDENTS GET A LOT FROM GIVING
The sounds of soccer practice ride on a breeze drifting across the St. Mary campus as seniors Zach Jenkins and Caroline Veatch perch on picnic table benches. They are two of St. Mary’s best and brightest, and they’ve each developed a heart for community service. St. Mary requires 75 hours of community service for all high school students before graduation. However, for most students, this graduation requirement becomes a life-changing experience that goes far beyond the minimum required hours. “At first, it felt like pressure,” admits Caroline, “but now I’ve come to see it more as a stepping-stone, and I enjoy volunteering. I really feel like if St. Mary hadn’t pushed me, I’m not sure I would have ever done it on my own.”
Caroline volunteers in the “Read2Lead” program at Morgan Elementary where she and other St. Mary High School students help kids learn to read or help them hone their skills. She also volunteers at Community Kitchen, a free kitchen that serves prepared meals to the hungry five days a week. “I had no idea what to expect when I started,” says Caroline. When she learned that Community Kitchen serves anywhere from 150 to 300 people at each meal, “It was just kind of overwhelming. There are so many people in the community in need of help.”
Zach puts in time at St. Vincent de Paul, a local Catholic-based charity that operates a budget store, food pantry, and help-line. “I started out small,” Zach recalls, “At first, I was just sweeping the floor and tidying the shelves, but really quickly, I came to enjoy the sense of pride and accomplishment that comes from playing even a small part in helping others.” Zach worked his way up, learning to price items and run sales at the counter. Last fall, in his fourth year of service, Zach was instrumental in helping to organize a fundraising auction for the organization held at St. Francis de Sales. “It was a first-time event for St. Vincent,” he explains. “I helped get silent auction items donated, did the social media, and even did some decorating.” Zach also volunteers at the Knights of Columbus, helping with events like fish fries and Christmas tree sales.
While both seniors are still a bit (understandably) undecided on their exact career path, they are sure they will continue in community service roles after graduation. “I love the atmosphere at Community Kitchen,” says Caroline, “and I enjoy the feeling of accomplishment.” Zach nods in understanding, “Serving others impacted me in ways I didn’t know it would. It’s grown my relationship with God and my community.”