Educator Interview

Fr. Robert Sirico

Fr. Robert Sirico was pastor of Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish in Grand Rapids, Michigan. 

Is your Catholic school independent, parochial, or diocesan?

 

As an apostolate of Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish, we are a parochial school.

 

 

What grades does your school serve?

 

We serve students in grades pre-K through 12th grade.

 

 

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

 

Our mission is, as an apostolate of Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish, to assist families, form Catholics, and cultivate culture. As an apostolate of a parish, our vision for the school is that it be an integrated part of a wider Parish community. We envision our faculty, staff, and families belonging to a parish community that fosters a culture that is imbued with the urgency of the Gospel. The basic building blocks of this community are made up of families. And the school is committed to helping these families fulfill their end as little churches within the Church. We do this by forming them in the Faith and in virtue by means of the cultural patrimony of Western Civilization.

 

 

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

 

The differences between public schools and ourselves pervade every aspect of school life. Where the public schools pursue political goals, we pursue eternal ends. Our school is rooted in the Mass and in the teaching of the Catholic Church; we seek to train faithful members of that church. The public schools seek to train zealots in whatever the current political fad is.

 

Our differences from our fellow diocesan schools are certainly less stark than those just described. The diocese as a whole shares a vision of forming faithful Catholics. We believe that by offering an integrated curriculum, one where the faith is the source and summit of each class and subject, where the faith is not relegated to just religion class but is the organizing principle of all education, we have something distinctive to offer our diocese.

 

 

How often do your students attend Mass?

 

Our students attend Mass daily, it is the first period of our school day.

 

 

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

 

Confession is offered several times a week. We participate in weekly adoration of the Holy Eucharist. Every class begins and ends in prayer. As a school, we pray the Angelus together at noon. This year, we began what we hope will be a yearly tradition of going on a pilgrimage to a cemetery on All Souls' Day.

 

 

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

 

At the high school level, history and literature are formally integrated in our Humanities classes. Throughout the entire school, however, each class is  explicitly integrated into the seamless garment of our Faith. Further, at an informal level, our teachers make a conscious effort to draw connections between the various subjects, thereby reinforcing the reality that all truths are but parts of one Truth.

 

 

What is your school’s enrollment?

 

Our current enrollment is 380.

 

 

Has enrollment been steady in recent years? Please explain.

 

Our enrollment has increased many times over in the past eight years. Last year in particular, we added 120 students from 35 new families.

 

 

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?

 

Full Time Program:

Montessori - $7,500

1-8th Grade - $5,000

9th - 12th Grade - $10,000

 

Part Time Program:

1-8th: $2,500

9th - 12th: $4,000

 

We offer a multi-family discount. 41% of our families request financial support.

 

 

How involved are parents in the life of your school?

 

 Our parents are expected to participate in a Parent Teacher Committee (PTC). This entity organizes parents into various teams that are dedicated to some facet of school life, such as organizing hot lunches, coordinating with teachers for needs such as field trip chaperones, and being touchpoints for new and prospective families. Parents are around the school building on a daily basis, and their presence reinforces the reality that we pursue that education is a joint venture between parents and the school that aids them.

 

 

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

 

Yes, our teachers are first and foremost committed Catholics. They do not leave their faith at the door when they go home, but rather they strive to live the faith that they teach their students and to grow daily in virtue and holiness. This desire to grow in virtue extends to their professional lives: they are passionate about the subjects they teach, they truly love their students and are always willing the Good for them, and they exhibit a drive to further their professional capabilities. This is done both through formal means, such as graduate work or attendance at conferences, and informal means, such as rigorous personal reading lists. This drive for self improvement results in a faculty that retains the energy and excitement so often attributed to young teachers.

 

 

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

 

While we cannot always be all things to all people, our parents are generally more than satisfied with the education that we offer. Empirically, we know this because of our retention rates. On a more personal level, we hear positive feedback about our teachers and programs all the time. Our parents are very committed to being an active part of their child's education, which results in many of them being around the school building on a regular basis. This allows them to see first hand what we do, and to tell us face to face about the level of their buy-in to what we are doing and aiming for here.

 

 

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?

 

We are intentionally building up our Parent Teacher Committee (PTC) as a forum for inter parent communication, parent teacher interface, and organizing parent involvement in school events.

 

The primary touch point for communicating with students is in the classroom. This is supplemented when needed (and age appropriate) with email. But we focus on fostering person to person communication between our students and teachers.

 

Once a week, our headmaster holds a video conference open to all of our families and staff to update parents about happenings in the school. We also issue regular newsletters to the school community. Further, in the lower school, teachers maintain weekly newsletters for the parents of students in the classrooms.

 

We are constantly looking to more effectively walk the line between effective and over communication. This is a never ending process, but one we seriously pursue to the best of our ability.

 

 

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

 

We have been working over the last year to organize the parents of the PTC into teams that have dedicated missions and lines of communication. These teams are focused on things like aiding teachers in the classroom, helping to organize special events, and taking prospective families on tours of the school so as to give them a parent’s perspective of our culture and mission. By organizing parents thusly, we are able to create clear expectations and systems of communication that ensure efficient and effective volunteerism.

 

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

        

That our school is authentically Catholic and educationally sound across all subjects. They can compete academically while receiving a moral formation, thus achieving a more holistic education. We know this is true because our parents continually invite new families to attend our school.

 

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?

 

The most effective way of spreading our story is through word of mouth. The testimony of parents about the effect of our school on their children’s lives, and in turn on their family lives, is a far more powerful rhetorical moment than any advertisement or social media post.

 

 

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?

 

Since our refounding as a classical academy, we have grown from under 70 to nearly 400 students. Nearly all of this growth is attributable to word-of-mouth advertising. Our current parents are our best advocates and our most important marketing effort is equipping them with the knowledge and materials they need to provide their personal “elevator pitch” for Sacred Heart Academy. We of course have all the standard marketing materials: A robust website and social media presence, viewbooks and fliers, yard signs, and open houses; however, the return on investment for these tools is best calculated when they are viewed as tools for equipping our parent ambassadors. At various times we have tried direct mailers, pay-per-click ads, traditional media ad placement, etc., but no other tactic has ever repaid our investment. Ultimately parents are all seeking to give their children something “more” than what they experienced in school. We have succeeded by showing them that what they are looking for is an intellectual and spiritual formation, rather than busyness and resume-building. Our facilities are not impressive, but every member of our teaching staff is passionately committed to living in fidelity to Christ and his Church.

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?

 

Our focus on forming children in the faith is what draws most of our parents. Our focus on enculturating students via Classical Learning sometimes takes some effort. The most effective way of convincing parents of the formative worth of taking Latin, Trivium classes, and the Humanities is through our teachers. Each is able to offer an impassioned and vivid exposition of how Classical education serves our mission of forming Catholics.

 

What do you look for when hiring teachers?

 

Our highest priority in hiring is the orientation of teachers to their subject matter and to working with young people. Teachers who know and love their subject and are passionate about bringing students into contact with truth will be successful beyond what teachers who lack these qualities are capable of, regardless of their experience or qualifications. We look for teachers who have seriously discerned a vocation to teaching and who are pursuing growth in holiness and relationship with Christ.

 

 

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?

 

At this point in our development, we receive many unsolicited employment inquiries each year and seldom post positions without already having multiple candidates’ resumes on file. We also attend the Classical Schools Job Fair at Hillsdale College each year and post positions at Catholic liberal arts schools via the Handshake platform. Our website, followed closely by word of mouth recommendations from employees and alumni, are the greatest sources of employment inquiries. Many of our current faculty members also found our school through their interest in the parish or through searches for a school with daily Mass. Our faculty community and the sacramental life of our parish are our biggest advantages in recruitment. Teachers feel supported by their colleagues and find that among a “faculty of friends”, as John Senior put it, they are able to continue their personal development and cultivate an intellectual life.

 

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?

 

Each candidate completes two interviews. The first is typically with a single administrator who makes an initial determination about the candidates’ qualifications and alignment with the school’s needs and mission. If the candidate is a potential fit and a position is open, a school tour is scheduled which includes a panel interview including multiple administrative team members and at least one faculty member. Ideally candidates spend a day observing classes prior to their panel interview. Upper school teaching candidates are also asked to teach a sample lesson observed by a department lead or the Dean of Faculty.

 

 

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

 

Prior to the beginning of each year, our faculty participates in an extended time of professional development. New staff members attend a week of “New Staff Training”, followed by a week of “All Staff Professional Development”, and a four-day faculty retreat. New staff members read John Milton Gregory’s The Seven Laws of Teaching and Harry and Rosemary Wong’s The First Days of School and spend a week talking about classroom management, classical pedagogy, and the culture of Sacred Heart Academy. By the end of this week, new teachers have their rooms prepared and their “Day 1 Documents” written. What follows is a flexible course of development that depends on a given teacher’s needs. Most teachers meet periodically with the Dean of Faculty for their first year, submit lesson plans for the first quarter, and submit tests and exams for review to the Dean of Faculty or their department’s lead teacher. New teachers receive at least four formal observations in their first year. Our greatest lesson about new teacher training is that in a K-12 environment with over 190 course offerings and no class with multiple sections, we need to appeal to what is most universal about the art of teaching. Much more important than subject or age-specific techniques is a sound philosophy of education. Additionally, we have seen the practice one-on-one assigned mentors fail repeatedly. New teachers need to know that they are supported by ALL of their colleagues and can derive wisdom from any number of sources.

 

 

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?

        

Approximately 51% of our budget is covered by tuition. So the importance of fundraising is glaring. Our most successful fundraisers are events that bring the community together for some sort of celebration. Our biggest event is a yearly auction. This last year it brought in more than $300k. We also hold a yearly Wild Game Dinner, which leverages our community’s affinity for the outdoors. At this event, the men of the parish bring in the bounty of their hunting, and together hold a feast. Fundraisers like this appeal to basic human needs of community and solidarity over shared meals. We try to keep our fundraisers to a minimum. Constantly asking parents for more money throughout the year exhausts their patience and goodwill. Instead of a constant stream of small scale fundraisers and intrusive capital campaigns, over the last few years we have striven to revive the Catholic duty to tithe. It is unfortunate to note that if Catholics tithed to the levels expected by Canon Law, the financial difficulties of the Church across the nation would disappear. By creating a community that our parishioners truly want to invest in, we hope to inspire a newfound desire to tithe in money, time, and prayer. This appeal is ongoing and is the primary way we seek to gain long term financial security.

 

 

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? 

 

Father Sirico is one of the primary fundraisers for our school. We also have a Director of Advancement and utilize our headmaster and school board for support. The director of Advancement spends 30-40 hours per week on fundraising. I spend about 5 hours per week.

 

What is your school known for in your area?

 

We are known for integrating the liturgical life of the Church with our classical curriculum.

 

 

What is your school’s greatest challenge?

 

Our greatest challenge lies in the extreme countercultural nature of what we are doing. For our education program to succeed, we need families to commit totally to what we are doing. This requires a daily commitment on the part of families to dedicate themselves to a family life that is different from those around us. For example, our society's current addiction to technology erects a huge barrier to our mission. The pressure our society’s addiction places upon families is real, and so families are asked to make a daily commitment to say “no” to our culture. This is a very hard thing to do, and it requires the support of the entire community of families to pull off.

 

 

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

We dedicate more time to worship than any other school in our area. No one in West Michigan offers daily mass, regular confession, and weekly adoration like we do.

 

 

What have our questions not covered that would help clarify the success of your school?

 

We believe that Providence was greatly involved in our reformation as a Catholic classical academy. The right people where here at the right time with the right experience and zeal for the mission.

 

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

 

For the success of any school that sets itself against the culture at large, a unanimous assent to the mission on the part of all involved is required.  

 

 

Share one custom that is unique to your school.

 

Our students participate in daily Mass.

 

 

Share one resource that strengthens your school.

 

The support of the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education strengthens our school.

 

 

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

 

Two tools that we use regularly are Slack, an internal communication tool and Google Docs.

 

 

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

In additional to reading about and carefully listening to others’ experience of leadership, each Sunday evening, in the context of private prayer and meditation and prayer, I attempt to make a concrete list of priorities I seek to fulfill in the coming week.

 

I should also say that an inventory of my failure in this regard for a part of my confession.

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Additional Resources:

 

Sacred Heart Academy