Educator Interview

Danny Flynn

Danny Flynn is principal of St. Jerome Academy in Hyattsville, Maryland.

Is your Catholic school independent, parochial, or diocesan?

We are a Parochial School of the Archdiocese of Washington


 

What grades does your school serve?

SJA serves students starting with our Montessori program (beginning at 18 months old and ending at age 5) and then through a classical curriculum beginning in Kindergarten and ending in 8th grade.

 

What is your vision for your school? How do you think of your mission? What do you hope to accomplish? 

 

St. Jerome Academy educates children in the truest and fullest sense by giving them the necessary tools of learning and by fostering wonder and love for all that is genuinely true, good, and beautiful. We emphasize classical learning because we want our students to read well, speak well, and think well and ultimately because truth and beauty are good in themselves and desirable for their own sake. We seek to incorporate our students into the wisdom of two thousand years of Catholic thought, history, culture, and arts so that they might understand themselves and their world in the light of the truth and acquire the character to live happy and integrated lives in the service of God and others. Education in this deep and comprehensive sense extends beyond the classroom and is more than just the acquisition of skills. It encompasses the whole of one’s life. For this reason, St. Jerome’s seeks to involve families ever more deeply in the life of the school and in the education of their children. 

 

True education has always rested on two presuppositions. The first is that truth is desirable for its own sake. It is good not for what it does, but for what it is. The second is that knowledge consists not in bending the truth to ourselves, but in conforming ourselves to truth. We can only conform ourselves to truth by freely embracing and loving it, and we can only love truth if we are enticed by its beauty. Love of beauty has therefore always been integral to the discovery of truth and true education has always sought to form the heart and mind, reason and will, desire and knowledge. In short, education forms the whole person in light of truth, beauty, and goodness.

 

The Vision Statement seeks to root a comprehensive understanding of education in a compelling and beautiful vision of reality worthy of students’ love. This vision is intended to govern every facet of the school’s life. Its aim is twofold: first, to communicate a certain body of knowledge; and second, to cultivate a certain kind of person, to develop as far as possible what is uniquely human in him, and so to equip him with the skills, habits, and aptitudes necessary to embrace truth and to become the person he was truly created to be. Immediately it becomes clear that no aspect of a school’s life is truly ‘extra-curricular’ or falls outside of its core mission of education, because every aspect of its life—from the way the school prays, to the dress code of students and staff, the arrangement of furniture in the classroom, the paint and posters on the wall, the activities during recess, the way technology is used, and the songs the children sing—reflects the school’s judgments and priorities about the meaning of its educational mission.

 

Everything a school does teaches something. Everything a school does is education of some sort. The important thing is to be sure that it is good and coherent education and that policies, procedures, pedagogical methods, and the culture of the school are not at cross purposes with the vision. Curriculum, pedagogical methods, and all the details of the school’s life should therefore be constantly assessed both in light of the conviction that knowledge and love of truth, beauty, and goodness are ends in themselves and in light of the twofold goal of the Vision Statement. Every activity, program, policy, method, or proposal should be tested by the following criteria, which follow from this vision, though not all are equally applicable to each of these facets of the school’s life. 


 

How do your school’s culture and curriculum differ from government schools in your area? From other Catholic schools in your area? 

 

As the Vision states, the goal of education is the student himself, to form his mind and his character in such a way that he can live his whole life, so far as possible, in a way that is consistent with the truth about himself as a human being created in the image and likeness of God. We often say that we aim to achieve this through an integrated curriculum. But what does this mean? And how is the curriculum integrated?

 

Just as there were two complementary dimensions to our vision of education—conveying a definite body of knowledge and forming certain aptitudes, qualities of character, and habits of mind in the student—so too is the curriculum integrated in a similar, twofold way.

 

The first is through the content of a historically based curriculum, rooted in an understanding of the human person as a creature, created in the image and likeness of God. From this starting point, the curriculum presents history as a coherent story propelled by the human desire for God and God’s coming to meet, inflame and satisfy that desire in Christ. This is what the Vision Statement means by “incorporating our students into the wisdom of two thousand years of Catholic thought, history, culture, and arts.” This means placing special emphasis on the Greek, Roman, Jewish, and other ancient Near East cultures that make up the Western tradition. This understanding of the person as a creature provides a basis for exploring and appreciating these and other pre-Christian cultures in their own right, for seeking to understand them as they understood themselves. But rooting history in the understanding of the human person as a creature with a natural desire for God also orients those cultures toward the coming of Christ, after which they are taken up, transformed, into a new Christian culture in which the deepest of human longings and the highest of human aspirations are met by a gift from God which surpasses all these. Other subjects such as literature, art, and music and even math and nature studies complement this understanding and deepen it. For instance, a class studying Greek culture in the Grammar stage might read and discuss stories from Greek mythology to think along with the Greeks ‘from the inside’. A class studying the Middle Ages in the Logic stage might learn Gregorian chant in music, or consider the symbolism of Gothic architecture in art or the symbolism of shapes in medieval stained glass in conjunction with their introduction to geometry. The students will twice cycle through the history of the world. In grades K-5, they will devote one year of study to Egypt and the Ancient Near East, Greece, Rome, the Middle Ages, the Modern Age, and America respectively. In grades 6-8, they will recapitulate this history by studying the ancient civilizations, then the Middle Ages, and ending with the Modern Age and America. By completing these two cycles, students will reinforce what they have previously learned as well as penetrate the meaning of history more deeply.

 

The second dimension integrates the curriculum in the student himself, by cultivating in the student aptitudes, habits, and qualities that shape his approach to all subjects, and bind them together into a unity in what the Vision Statement calls “wonder and love for all that is genuinely true, good, and beautiful.” For instance, the curriculum emphasizes observation and rendering in 10 subjects as varied as art, music, and nature studies. The purpose of this emphasis is also to cultivate within the students habits and powers of looking, seeing, and noticing, the development of which makes us most human and most alive. These, in turn, imply a capacity for concentration, whole-hearted attention, silence, and stillness of both body and soul. The study of music seeks to cultivate the same power of attention and understanding with the sense of hearing as observation does with the sense of sight. In this way, the qualities and habits needed to read beyond the surface level of a story, to notice mathematical patterns in nature, to distinguish one bird from another, to hear parts of a harmony in music, or to recognize how shadows are effected in a painting by lines, geometrical shapes, and gradations of color, are not unlike the qualities needed to recognize the presence of God which, like light, always invisibly surrounds us. Approached in this way, the study of nature, music and art is a kind of preparation for contemplative prayer or adoration, and these in turn, prepare the student to study the world and to live in it in a fully human way. In these two ways, this approach to education forms a unified whole. The core subjects studied at each stage of the curriculum each have peculiar objectives which, taken together, combine for building up the whole. We look at each of these in very general terms, asking in each case what skills, aptitudes, and knowledge we want our students to come away with at the end of their time at St Jerome’s, in order to see how each subject combines with the others to serve the overall vision and its twofold aim. 

 

How often do your students attend Mass?

 

Our Students in Grades K-8 attend mass weekly. Additionally, older students are offered the opportunity to attend Mass voluntarily at other times during the week.

 

 

How else is the Catholic faith integrated into the school program?

 

With the liturgical calendar as a guide, we celebrate with various traditions throughout the year including: 

  • Mary's Meals on Fridays during Lent

  • Stations of the Cross on Fridays during Lent

  • Walking Rosary procession for the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe

  • Adoration every Friday 

  • Litany of the Saints in Latin for All Saints Day

  • Saint Nicholas play on his Feast Day.  

  • Litany of Light for Montessori students 

  • Catechesis of the Good Shepherd for all Montessori, K and 1st grade students. (All 4 Montessori classrooms have an atrium within their room and we have a separate atrium for students in K and 1st grades)

  • Scripture classes for all students

  • Confession offered each quarter to students

  • Rosary prayed in home rooms

  • Theology of the Body for 8th grade students

  • Iconography for 6th, 7th, and 8th grade students in art class

  • May Crowning during the month of May

  • Medieval passion play performed by 7th graders during Holy Week

  • House system to work on service projects and prayer traditions

  • After school clubs including St. Joseph Society for boys and Daughters of Mary for girls.     

 

 

Are subjects—such as mathematics, science, literature, and history—integrated in any way?

 

Our core class includes deliberate integration of religion, literature and history. This begins in kindergarten and goes through 8th grade. Students will have core class 5 days a week and depending on the grade, more than once a day in many cases. There are also strategic classes which are integrated, Latin and grammar for example, math and science, but meet less frequently during a week. 

 

What is your school’s enrollment?

 

Our current enrollment for the 2020-2021 school year is 410 students. We have enrolled 450 students for the 2021-2022 school year. 

 

 

Has enrollment been steady in recent years? 

 

By switching over our curriculum to adopt the Educational Plan of SJA, our enrollment has seen profound effects. Because of the classical curriculum, we have attracted families that desire to be a part of the parish and school community. In addition to this, by adding a Montessori program in 2013, this has served as a natural feeder for the rest of the school. In 2018 we decided to return to a two-track model (two classes per grade) and have been adding a second class each year since then. We anticipate to cap at 550 students in 2026.

Enrollment has increased every year since 2014.  

2009-2010  245

2010-2011  267

2011-2012  266 

2012-2013  260

2013-2014  299

2014-2015  295

2015-2016  328

2016-2017  331

2017-2018  333

2018-2019  365

2019-2020  390

2020-2021  410

2021-2022  450

 

What is your school’s tuition? Do you offer a sibling discount? If you offer financial aid, how many families receive it and what is the average grant?

 

The standard tuition rate is $10,348 and $7,968 with a Catholic grant. We do offer a sibling discount which is 17.5% off for the second child and 35% off for the third children. The fourth child and beyond are free. 72% percent of our families receive financial aid and the average grant a child receives is $3,600 per student. This year the total financial aid awarded was $1,060,000, up from about $750,000 last year.  

 

 

How involved are parents in the life of your school?

 

Our parents play a vital role as active members in the life of our school. Most notably, in their role as primary educators, they have the task of passing on the faith to their children. There are various opportunities for parents to attend functions and activities here at the campus in both the school and the parish. At home the parents regularly access content from the curriculum and by way of debating questions posed in the classrooms. The educational plan purposefully describes homework as ‘a game the whole family can play’. Parents come in to observe presentations, meet regarding academic concerns, or to volunteer. As volunteers, they manage and operate the Parents Association which enhances and builds the overall culture of the school. They organize events, fundraisers, social gatherings, and formational opportunities.  


 

Are you generally satisfied with your school’s teachers? How so?

 

I’m significantly pleased with our entire faculty. They have a shared vision of seeing their role as a vocation to evangelize as a teacher. They realize that this starts with their own personal spiritual development. Through their witness, they know that they are passing on their love for Christ through the content. They are unveiling and unpacking the truth  for children to discover. The faculty has also built up a healthy culture for intellectual growth as of a community of learners. They share a balance of professionalism and charity where the students are challenged and pushed while also knowing that they are loved.  

 

 

Are parents generally satisfied with the education their children receive at your school? How do you know?   

 

Parents are satisfied with the product we offer. This is most apparent in their high level of involvement in the day to day life of the school. Our Parents Association plays a critical role in helping to shape the culture of the school for our families. 

 

Here is data taken from our last family survey provided in Fall 2019. (Survey used a Likert scale of 5 = “Strongly agree” to 1 = “strong disagree”)

 

  1. Administrators, faculty, and staff serve as role models of faith and service to students. 4.63

  2. In all subjects, teachers help students think critically and ethically about the world around them, using the lens of gospel values and Catholic doctrine and beliefs. 4.60

  3. In classes in our school, students spend most of the time solving problems, discussing ideas, creating their own work, reading, writing, speaking, and researching. 4.62

  4. Our school mission clearly expresses a commitment to Catholic identity. 4.77

  5. Our school provides an academically rigorous Catholic religion program, taught by qualified teachers. 4.60 

 

What are you doing to intentionally build and strengthen your school community? How do you communicate with students, families, and teachers? How do members of your community connect with each other?

 

This is done in a formal and organized way as well as in a natural and spontaneous way for our community. We have a weekly communication entitled ‘The VOX’ which shares the short term and long term events for students and families. It includes academic programs, parish offerings, CYO events and religious education directives. It includes formational opportunities through a downloadable document called the Domestic Church Bulletin. The VOX includes calendar updates and promotes social opportunities for the community to gather in person, whether that be a fundraiser at a local restaurant, a book club on campus, or a moms group meeting in the parish.  
 

 

How do you utilize volunteers in the operation of your school? What has worked well in making volunteers effective?

 

We have a highly effective Parents Association that plans, organizes and manages events and activities aligned to the mission and vision while aimed at building up the culture of the school. Parents and families are invited to oversee specific events and activities. We aim to align parents' gifts and talents to be highlighted and showcased for the rest of the community. They oversee a large portion of our fundraising and social events.

 

 

What resources do you recommend parents use at home to deepen families’ understanding of and appreciation for the Catholic faith? For example, Word on Fire, Institute of Catholic Culture, Augustine Institute, etc.

 

We have our own monthly bulletin that is created by parents and reviewed by the administration called the Domestic Church Bulletin. It includes devotions, prayers, traditions, a saints study, recipes, and opportunities for pilgrimages. This has been a wonderful resource for families to be able celebrate the liturgical calendar with various traditions right in their own home. 

 

Our parish has an account with FORMED from Augustine Institute and this is offered to school staff and parish families as well. 

 

Our parish also offers an ENDOW group for women's formation and THAT MAN IS YOU! program for men in the parish.

 

What do parents value most in your school? How do you know that?

 

Our parents value the mission and vision of the school. This is captured during the admissions process and from current existing parents. This is also identified in survey results from parents: 

Our school mission clearly expresses a commitment to Catholic Identity. 4.77 (using a 5 point Likert scale)

 

 

What marketing efforts (events, social media, print advertising, digital advertising, etc.) have you found most effective in sharing your school’s story with the local community?

 

Our marketing efforts are primarily based on first-hand word of mouth experiences. The vast majority of our new families come by way of personal references from existing or former families from the school. 

 

We have a parent who manages our Facebook page but that is our only social media presence.

Additionally we do have a full time Director of Advancement who oversees marketing and enrollment.  He manages every inquiry, parent interview, tour, presentation, and the entire paperwork process. 

 

Our greatest aspect of the marketing process has been weekly school tours. We offer school tours nearly every Thursday from 8:30 am to 11:30 am from November 1st through May 1st. We have around a 90% application completion rate for families who tour the school. It gives us a chance to have a face-to-face discussion with the families, meet the students, explain the mission and vision and, most importantly, have them witness the classical model in person. They are able to walk in and out of the class while in session and experience the content and the delivery.

 

 

How do you recruit new families to your school? What resources do you use to share your school’s story and connect with likeminded families? What insights can you share about what parents are seeking for their children and what your school offers that others don’t?

 

We do not directly recruit families to the school. Most of them find us first. Many families are aware of our school community from around the Archdiocese. There is growing interest for our Catholic Montessori program for the youngest children and the classical curriculum for students in grades K-8. Many families move to the neighborhood with an intentional focus on being in the community and sending their children to our school. 

 

Many parents are looking for their child to have the opportunity to experience wonder and ponder deeper questions that may not be accessible to other students due to their educational model and standards. Parents here are seeking a school that is Logocentric, downplays technology, is exposed to primary sources, learns in an integrated way, and its students can read well, write well, and think on their own.  ​

 

How much have you needed to sell your community of parents on the value of the education and formation your school offers? How many parents seek out what your school offers vs. how many need to be convinced? What messaging resonates with parents?

 

We try to sell the families on this very early on in the process; meeting with them individually, providing opportunities for questions and answers, having them attend events put on by our Parents Association, and having them engage with the content in the curriculum. Additionally, all school communications share a direct and indirect message attached to the formation of the person.

 

Parents really connect with the Vision statement found in our educational plan commonly referred to as the blueprint. This is a rough ballpark figure but I think around 75% seek us out for what they know we offer while 25% need to be convinced. Whenever I send a mass email to the parent community, I aim to tie in a scripture reference or analogy to help them see that there is a redemptive quality to what we are doing and a particularly Christian intention to how we make decisions. 

 

How do you determine whether a prospective family will be a good fit for your school community? What steps are included in your application process? What shared values do current families expect you to protect as you add new families to your school community?

 

We require all new families to complete a long and multi-faceted application form. This includes family information, teacher recommendations, report cards, health records, documentation for any learning differences, and answering questions about why they are choosing our school specifically.  

 

Additionally, we have a director of advancement who manages, schedules and provides all school tours, oversees the online application process, and gets to know the families a bit. Even with all of these things, sometimes the experience ends up not matching for both sides. Current families expect us to protect the mission and the vision of the school and find new families that share the same or are at least open to the mission and vision. 
 

 

What do you look for when hiring teachers? 

 

We look for a balanced professional who is committed to guiding children towards the truth and open to growing in their own faith life. They should have some experience teaching children, some intellectual curiosity, and a desire to love the content they will teach. It is not necessary that they have a degree or certification in education. We seek teachers with an openness to discovering themes through integrating content and asking great questions.  

 

 

How do you recruit new teachers? What resources do you use to share your school’s story and connect with qualified teachers outside of your school community? What insights can you share about what teachers are seeking in a school community and what your school offers that others don’t?

 

We typically recruit new teachers by word of mouth. We rely on our current staff, our Curriculum Committee and parents to assist in this process as well. We have also posted openings on the ICLE site and this has been helpful. We have been able to share our story through the ICLE and their case studies for schools, as well as having several staff members attend and present at their conferences, seminars, and even virtual professional development opportunities online. 

 

We have hosted a school leaders forum for teachers and administrators from around the country to spend time observing classes and participating in panel discussions and content based seminars. We have had the privilege of being highlighted in various publications including First Things, NPR, The Washington Post, USA Today.

 

Teachers are seeking a professional learning community where the faculty, staff and administration all understand and live the vision and mission of the school. I think there are numerous schools around the country that have captured this in their culture. Perhaps one difference is that we have our own educational plan that was developed here and serves as the physical guide for all that we do.  

 

How do you determine whether a teacher you are considering hiring will be a good fit for your school community? What steps are included in your interview process? What shared values do current teachers and families expect you to protect as you add new teachers to your school community?

 

This is somewhat hard to quantify as it is a combination of experience, personality, understanding of content, connection with children, and openness to growth. Many of the questions during the interview process center around our mission and vision and determine if the philosophy of education of the candidate is a good match. We interview candidates on two separate administrative levels asking similar and different questions. We will oftentimes include a current faculty member as well during the interview. We check references from previous employers and we have also asked candidates to come in and teach a sample lesson to the existing class. 

 

 

How do you train teachers and what have you learned about teacher training?

 

We have learned that teachers' training needs to be multifaceted. It is good to have one mentor/point person who is an experienced teacher to streamline questions and advice, but the formation of the new teacher must include various avenues over an extended period of time.  

The first component is immersion in the content. If we are asking them to fall in love with the content, this is something that takes a different amount of time depending on their varied level of immersion. With many new hires, we provide them a box of books and ask them to start reading the content associated with the field of study they will be teaching. They come back with a whole host of questions and the volley ensues.

There needs to be time spent on pedagogy. This will include in-house training and coaching, professional development from outside groups like ICLE, Cana Academy, and Circe Institute. These groups have helped to formalize the language around style and delivery of Socratic, mimetic, and dialectic lessons.

We have found great value in promoting informal observations from both administrators and faculty. Providing a chance for new teachers to go and observe veteran teachers using similar methods has shortened the learning curve. 
 

 

What percentage of your school’s budget is covered by tuition revenue? How important is fundraising to the continued operation of your school? What works best to inspire families and community members to support your school? What doesn’t work? How have you created momentum in your fundraising efforts and what plans do you have to strengthen your fundraising program in the years ahead?

 

82% of our school budget is covered by tuition revenue. Fundraising plays an important role in the continued operation of the school, offering an opportunity for the funding to be supported by various extensions of the community. Additionally, many people are served by the fundraising efforts, albeit food, or an experience, or physical goods. We have found that the best fundraisers for our school are those that allow people to give freely on their own accord without requiring a minimum level of participation. We have found that direct sales fundraisers are not as effective. We have created momentum in our fundraising efforts but offering simple incentives for the children to participate and widening the circle of support to extend beyond the current school families. 

 

Are you the primary fundraiser for your school? How many hours do you spend on fundraising every week? How many hours does other staff spend on fundraising?  

 

Our primary fundraiser at the school is an event we hold in the fall called the Race for Education. This event is primarily organized by our Parent Association. We use form letters where the students directly solicit open donations from their families, friends and neighbors. Each student and family receive certain incentives for sending out a certain number of letters to their family and friends all across the country. In a sense, the students are racing to bring in addresses and fill out the letters and get them out in the mail by a certain deadline. The recipients receive the letters and donate an amount they are comfortable with either by direct mail and returning a check or making donations online. The event culminates in a one-day race for students competing against their classmates to see who can out run each other on a designed course. I spend on average around five hours per week on fundraising. I also have a parent who works directly on fundraising and he spends roughly 5 hours per week as well. 

 

What have you learned about relationships with those who oversee your school? What are common challenges for schools operating under your model and what is your school doing well that would be helpful for other schools to know about? What advice are you willing to share about how to navigate important and/or challenging relationships? 

 

The common challenge for the diocesan schools is having to adhere to diocesan standards. We are unique in that we do not need to teach these standards. We have an agreement in which we adhere to the religion standards, but we are to follow our Educational Plan in all the other subject matters. In speaking with schools that are faced with this issue, they can see the problem as having to double their efforts, or choose between two goods. One potential solution is to start with the diocesan standards and look for ways an integrated curriculum can exceed standards across multiple subject matters. 
 

 

What is your school known for in your area? 

 

Our school is known as a vibrant Catholic classical community. People pursue our school to have the ability to have their kids in the Academy, the option to walk to the sacraments offered in the parish, and the chance to participate in the adult community as well. It is known for the classical curriculum and the growing enrollment as well. 

 

 

What is your school’s greatest challenge?

 

Our greatest challenge is square footage. We are growing at a rapid rate and even with the growth plan of adding an additional class each year to one grade, we are not able to meet the demands of people interested in being here. Our enrollment, applications, and waitlists grow each year but we are limited in square footage in our current building. We have been moving classes and offices around the building each year and doing our best to reuse existing space by remodeling various aspects of the current footprint, but it is still not enough. We will be at capacity within 3 years and will still need space for our 7th and 8th grades to have two classes per grade. We do not receive funding for capital improvements or investments from the diocese, so this is a looming challenge that needs to be addressed.  

 

 

What does your school do better than any other school in your area? 

 

Our school integrates our curriculum in a holistic way guided by a Christian anthropology and uses our historical arc within the Educational Plan to incarnate the Logos. We aim to guide students towards the truth by giving them something better to love and letting them learn the abiding things. Hopefully we steer them towards wisdom, virtue, and faith so they encounter Christ throughout their day.  

 

What is the most important difference between your school and struggling schools?

One important difference is that our faculty, staff, students, and parents are united behind a shared mission and vision for the school that is not attached to any one particular person or personality but explained in our educational plan and lived in the community. 

 

Share one custom that is unique to your school. 

 

December is an amazing month and I always enjoy our Carpe Noctem Christmas craft fair, our Christmas concert with a living nativity, along with numerous traditions and opportunities for spiritual growth and service. 

 

Share one resource that strengthens your school.

A resource that strengthens our school is the Parents Association. 

 

Share one tool—online or otherwise—that increases the efficiency or professionalism of your work. 

 

Regarding efficiency and professionalism, I really believe that standing at the front door as the kids are entering the building each day has been a great bridge builder between both students and parents and the school.  

 

 

Share one activity you do regularly that makes you a more effective leader.  

 

Prayer is probably the best use of my time on any given day. After that, I would say my availability—just being able to be free for teachers, parents, and students—seems to be a solid use of my time. After that. I would say informal walk-throughs. Due to COVID we have not been able to do this with great regularity. During a good year spending as much time in the classrooms with the students is the best way to get a sense of how things are going, what's being learned, and other ways to improve. 

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Additional Resources:

 

St. Jerome Academy

The Educational Plan of St. Jerome Academy

Parent Interview: Abby Sandel 

Parent Interview: Paul and Maura Doman