‘Beauty is for Everyone’

Serving pre-kindergarten through eighth grade, St. Jerome Academy is the parish school of the nearby St. Jerome Catholic Church, located in Hyattsville, Md. Through a classical curriculum, the academy offers students a window into a world of beauty. A graduate of St. Jerome can analyze poetic meter and defend an original thesis statement with reasons, details, and examples in grammatically accurate prose. Students calculate slope, represent quadratic equations, and sing the Mass parts in Latin. They study Latin, hold avid discussions, keep nature journals, memorize poetry, and perform plays.

Given the school’s important work, it becomes apparent what was at stake when the school almost closed eight years ago. However, it would be misleading to suppose that the school was offering a classical education in those days. In fact, the eminent end of the school in 2009 was the impetus for considering that approach.

Do we want our school?

Fr. James Stack had served as pastor of the parish since 1998. School Principal Mary Pat Donoghue was a child of the parish. She had grown up at St. Jerome, attended its school as a child, and begun teaching there in 1991. She went on to serve as vice-principal between 2001 and 2008.

Donoghue knew first-hand how student enrollment had declined by half since 2001. She had seen the resulting dramatic shift in the school’s culture and morale. Its Catholic identity was waning, its tests scores were falling, and parental involvement was dropping. Fewer parish families were enrolling their children in the school, and those mainly for the sake of its proximity to major D.C. commuter routes. The school deficit was about $170,000.

In August 2009, Donoghue became principal. A few months later, she and Fr. Stack were asked to attend an afternoon meeting at the pastoral center for the Archdiocese of Washington. Donoghue and Fr. Stack had a good guess about the meeting’s agenda.

The superintendent of education, the chief financial officer, and others went over the financial data. They explained that St. Jerome’s school had run out of money and run out of options. From where she sat at the conference table in the pastoral center, Donoghue could see out the windows. She remembers watching the trees whipped about by the wind. Her heart was racing; she could feel it beating in her ears while other sounds were strangely muffled. Over and over she thought, “I won’t let this close. This can’t close. This can’t close.”

The conclusion of the meeting was that St. Jerome school leaders needed to meet with the community and determine if there was any will to keep the school open. If so, St. Jerome needed to develop a strategic plan within the next few months or choose the alternative of merging with another school or closing its doors. Furthermore, to register students for the coming school year, St. Jerome would need to present its plan as well as close its deficit of $170,000 within the next three months. Adding a melancholy note, the community meetings were scheduled for November 2, the Day of the Dead, All Souls Day.

It was grey and overcast when school faculty and staff gathered in the church with Donoghue and Fr. Stack for their 3:30 p.m. presentation on the state of the school. At 6:00 p.m., Donoghue and Fr. Stack repeated the presentation to the parish council, finance council, and school advisory board. And at 7:30 p.m., teachers and school staff sat down in the front pews of the church, and the church filled with school and parish families. Now thoroughly exhausted, Donoghue and Fr. Stack began presenting for the third time. With some surprise, Donoghue noticed that most of the attendees were not school families but other parishioners.

Among those parishioners were Chris Currie and Dr. Michael Hanby. Currie and his family joined the parish in 1997; he now serves as director of advancement for St. Jerome. Dr. Hanby and his family joined the parish in 2007, after he took a teaching position at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family. Both the Currie and Hanby families were among the parishioners who had opted not to enroll their children at St. Jerome. Instead, they were educating their children classically, at home and through cooperatives. In fact, Hanby had written an essay on classical education in fall 2009, to help the Curries with managing their small classical cooperative called Crittenden Academy.

In the church of St. Jerome, a rich dark reredos of wood frames the crucifix and tabernacle. On an evening, it is dim and shadowy in the back of that massive church. Here in the back section of pews, both Currie and Hanby were sitting, on the right “St. Joseph” side of the church.

The Curries were invested in nurturing Hyattsville’s neighborhoods and in building Catholic community. They were concerned about losing the vitality of having a parish school. Nothing was to be gained by trading all that possibility for a big empty building on campus.

Hanby was sitting in a pew with his arms folded, feeling his blood pressure rise. He was troubled about the state of education in general. In his prior position as associate director of Baylor University’s Institute for Faith and Learning, Hanby had already been considering problems in education. As a teacher and father, he noticed how many students lack a culture; they are heirs to no historical, artistic, literary, philosophical, or theological tradition. He has seen abysmal deficits in writing skills. Most concerning is how listless many students seem about learning. According to Hanby, education has become merely a means. Securing the most expeditious means is all the focus, whether through resumé building, cramming for tests, or simply cheating. Hanby brought these concerns to the parish meeting. He was also concerned about a disconnect between the school, the parish, and many parish families concerned for their children’s education. The closure of the school would end any possibility for integrating school and parish life.

The meeting with school and parish families was conducted along the lines of a town hall meeting. Many attending that evening meeting on November 2 were completely blind-sided by the news. Donoghue knew the financial problems were part of larger issues connected to student enrollment, school culture, and Catholic identity. As she put it, “No number of bake-sales was going to fix the problem.” Tensions rose as people took the microphone to ask questions or voice suggestions: Why not ask the Domino’s Pizza guy for money? Why not lay off some teachers? Seeing the teachers in the front pew, Currie winced at that latter suggestion. Everybody was getting uncomfortable.

Handouts were provided; one carried the school’s mission statement. Hanby pulled this out first, reading through it and thinking, “How does this mission statement differ in any significant way from the education that parents can get for free at their public school? Let’s imagine what a really Catholic school would look like.” Clenching that paper in his fist, Hanby went home that night and emailed Donoghue: “I really want this school to survive, but I’m not sure it deserves to. If you want to do something bold here, I’d love to help.”

The superintendent of education for the Archdiocese of Washington, Dr. Patricia Weitzel-O’Neill, was also present at the meeting. Afterward she stood in the church’s center aisle and spoke with a line of parishioners. Several approached her individually about the possibility of a classical education at St. Jerome. She would later contact Donoghue and advise her to consider a classical approach. Donoghue was somewhat familiar with the principles of classical education, but knew she would need help. With clear support from the parish, Donoghue and Fr. Stack set out to renew St. Jerome’s school.

Drafting a new plan

Shortly after meeting with the archdiocese, Donoghue began forming a committee to steer the school’s future. The committee grew organically. Some people like Hanby simply contacted Donoghue. Other contacts were made over conversations at post-Sunday Mass coffee and donuts. In the end, the committee had eight members, led by parishioner Dr. Jared Ortiz, who was completing his dissertation on Augustine’s Confessions at The Catholic University of America. They met every week between December and March to draft a new educational plan for St. Jerome. As spring approached, Hanby and Ortiz “pulled several all-nighters” to finish the plan, sometimes a few nights in a row.

Fr. Stack’s leadership was key during this time. “Fr. Stack: I will love that man forever,” said Hanby. “He presided over a couple miracles. None of this would have happened without his humility. He is not threatened by things that are beautiful and excellent. He wanted the best for his people. And we didn’t have much to work with other than elbow grease.”

Donoghue and Fr. Stack found a wonderful supporter in Dr. Weitzel-O’Neill, who worked to relieve St. Jerome of meeting the archdiocesan educational standards. Instead, St. Jerome was asked only to employ some standardized assessments as it adopted a classical curriculum for the school’s new educational charter. Meanwhile, Donoghue and Fr. Stack closed a major portion of the financial deficit. They conducted a direct appeal and several fundraisers, while Fr. Stack reached out to friends and contacts made over the course of his priesthood. By January, most of the needed money was donated or pledged.

The transition was a source of tension, the ending of relationships, and several resignations. Before the start of the new school year for 2010-2011, Donoghue would make seven new hires. Teacher training could not begin until the very end of summer. Donoghue relied on prayer “every single day” to sustain her during this time: “It was really an invitation to walk by faith and not by sight. There were many times where I worried that we wouldn’t be able to do this. I relied on prayer constantly for this.” She often prayed at her desk. She also had a key to the church, and there was many a time Donoghue “zoomed” across the street to sit in a quiet pew and pray before the Blessed Sacrament.

St. Jerome Today

With the opening of the school year in 2010-2011, St. Jerome began offering a classical education in every grade. Of area schools facing the same dilemma in 2009, St. Jerome is the only school which did not close or merge with another school. In fact, since the change, St. Jerome student enrollment has grown every year.

Even more remarkably, without enormous financial resources, the school continues to offer its outstanding education to a diversified student body, about 10 percent Hispanic, 30-40 percent African-American, 30-40 percent White, and around 10 percent multi-racial. According to Donoghue, students also come from widely varied backgrounds in terms of single-parent households and socio-economic status.

According to Hanby, “Beauty is for everyone. Truth is for everyone. And goodness is for everyone. There is no reason why people from all walks of life shouldn’t benefit from a really beautiful and true and profound education. For everyone, but especially those who come from more difficult circumstances, it can be absolutely life-changing.”

Several schools around the country have adopted St. Jerome’s educational plan. St. Jerome is now in the process of revising the plan to make it even more adaptable for other schools. Now as director of school services for the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education, Donoghue helps principals, teachers, and parents form themselves in the classical tradition, equipping them to found or renew schools, the better to serve their families, parishes, and communities.

GWENDOLEN ADAMS earned her Ph.D. at the Maryvale Institute in Birmingham, UK, and an M.A. in Catholic studies from the University of St. Thomas, Minn. She has taught at the middle-school, high-school, undergraduate, and graduate levels. She blogs about culture and human formation at http://christianintegration.blogspot.com/. This article was first published in Faith & Culture: The Journal of the Augustine Institute (www.faithandculture.com) and is republished with permission.

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