Jeffrey Presberg is headmaster of St. John the Beloved Academy in McLean, Virginia.
Is your Catholic school independent, parochial, or diocesan?
St. John the Beloved Academy is a parochial school associated with St. John the Beloved Catholic Church in McLean, Virginia.
I was hired in 2019 to rebuild the school and start a classical liberal arts program.
What grades does your school serve?
What is your vision for your school? How do you think of your mission? What do you hope to accomplish?
My vision for St. John the Beloved is to create a liberal arts school built on a Christian humanist foundation. Friendship is the cornerstone of our school. It originates with the faculty; we are intentional about forming friendships with each other. It informs our pedagogy and schoolwide culture. It shapes how we relate to students and parents, cultivating a love of wisdom, liberal arts, and great conversation throughout the school community.
The role of contemplation and silence; of stories; of beauty and art; of philosophy and history; of prudence, courage, and all the virtues, are underpinnings of our school.
How do your school’s culture and curriculum differ from government schools in your area? From other Catholic schools in your area?
Our vision is rooted in the truth of the Catholic Church and the human person. That makes our school fundamentally different than secular schools.
Our basic goals are the same as those of other Catholic schools, but the way we think about and pursue those goals is very different. We have been given a lot of leeway to form our own culture. That shapes the books we read and the way we teach. We reject educational materials and approaches that are counter the Catholic mind we want to foster.
Our school looks different than other schools. When I became headmaster, the school was unattractive. We painted and improved the lighting. We redid the hallways. Previously, students’ work had been plastered everywhere; there was not one piece of framed artwork and 90% of religious images were unattractive. Now, we have small sections of students’ work in the hallways, complementing beautiful works of framed sacred art throughout the school. Sacred artists challenge the way we look at everything. Henry Ossawa Tanner is one of my favorite artists—and now students have the opportunity to be inspired by work during the school day.
How often do your students attend Mass?
Students attend Mass as a class once a week, and as a school once a month. They have opportunities to visit the chapel throughout the week.
How else is the Catholic faith integrated into the school program?
The Catholic faith is integrated throughout the school program—not just in religion class, which is part of our curriculum—in our approach to forming the Catholic mind. Contemplation and prayer open our hearts and minds to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Great literature touches our souls and strengthens our virtues. Folk tales, even if not explained, awakens our senses to the presence of good and evil, giving us supernatural strength. History, when taught as a story—in a natural, not forced, moralistic, way—illuminates our role in the chronicle of mankind.
Are subjects—such as mathematics, science, literature, and history—integrated in any way?
Classes are organized into distinct subjects, but they are integrated naturally. For example, science and religion are separate classes, but discovering the natural world means discovering God’s creation. It is natural for students to make this connection to better understand the world around them and their place in it.
What is your school’s enrollment?
We are at capacity with 265 students and a deep waiting list (well over 150).
Has enrollment been steady in recent years? Please explain.
Enrollment has not been steady. I have completed two years as headmaster and will be embarking on my third year in the fall. Enrollment had been dropping for five years in a row. We increased enrollment to the 160s (up from 140) in the first year and the 180s in the second year (we would have grown faster without COVID restrictions).
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?
Tuition is $8,000. There is a sibling discount, but it is the same right for every additional. We’re generous with financial aid. We are building a culture of fundraising.
How involved are parents in the life of your school?
Parents are very involved. How they are involved has been a part of our shift in culture. When I arrived at the school, the PTO acted as its own entity, setting its own priorities and spearheading its own fundraising. Some parents wanted to use the PTO to enable parents to organize against the school. We’ve reconfigured the parents’ council so it operates in a spirit of friendship. We approve room moms to help reinforce a culture that is friendly, helpful, and not legalistic. We invite parents into the community through headmaster coffees, liberal arts events, teas, and other formative activities.
Are you generally satisfied with your school’s teachers? How so?
Yes. At this point, I have hired more than half of our teachers. We have had a good amount of turnover. Those who stayed after our transition have loved it. The teachers we lost were accustomed to a class management system, where they didn’t have to love their subject or be passionate about getting kids to love it.
How pleased I am with this group. They have embraced the training we’ve provided and it has raised their performance. They are grateful to have more time for planning (we added more time for recess and PE and hired more part-time teachers). It is wonderful to see these teachers cultivating wonder in their classrooms. They are eager to grow in their craft and we are committed to giving them more opportunities to do that through on-site training and more off-site programs through Cana Academy.
The staff was 99.7% women when I started. The culture against boys was strong. Now it is 50/50.
Are parents generally satisfied with the education their children receive at your school? How do you know?
The feedback from parents has been incredible. Fundraising is off the charts. I’m communicating with parents all the time and they let me know they are pleased. The waitlist is huge.
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?
From interviews with parents, I know there is a hunger for depth in the teaching and understanding of the Faith. Many now see the repercussions of compromising Catholic education and copying secular education standards. We hosted a seminar for parents on Plato’s and it filled up. Parents want to be a part of what they are discovering through our school.
How do you utilize volunteers in the operation of your school? What has worked well in making volunteers effective?
Strong relationships are the key to good volunteers. We have opened up time for parents to visit with teachers. We are hosting headmaster coffees. We are building trust.
Also important is choosing friendly, thoughtful parents to fill volunteer roles.
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.
The parish website and parent updates provide access to reading materials and spiritual exercises.
We encourage parents to read books their children are reading in school.
What do parents value most in your school? How do you know that?
Parents value the education we offer in the full sense of that word. They appreciate being a part of our school community.
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?
We did not want to do fast growth. Purposely, wanted to rely on word of mouth. We channeled our marketing efforts into rebranding. We created a house system and a coat of arms.
One of first pieces we developed was a flyer listing our summer reading. We used the online resource, Smore, to create an attractive flyer, very unlike the clunky, clerical style we had been using.
We laid off heavy advertising, instead building our branding by making improvements to the school.
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 recruit through word of mouth. We have developed a better relationship with our parish. More parishioners now consider themselves a part of the mission of the school. Parents are seeking wisdom for themselves and their children; they are eager to join the school community to embark on a journey for wisdom alongside likeminded parents.
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?
The families that seek us out are looking for the education and culture we offer. They know current families who tell them their children are thriving at our school. They don’t need to be convinced.
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?
Last year, I interviewed every family. This year, a part-time admissions person is helping with interviews, but I am still intimately involved in the process. I review admissions updates weekly or more. At this point, I know a lot of the families applying, and many have been referred to us by current school families.
We are not yet where we want to be with regard to admissions. This year, every middle school student and all middle school parents will be interviewed. We would like to reach a point where all new students will have a shadow day, and all prospective parents and students will be interviewed, with middle school student applicants writing an essay on site.
What do you look for when hiring teachers?
A background in the liberal arts is not a must, but it’s close. Musts are a capacity for friendship, childlike spirit and energy (important because it translates to how well a person works with kids), a strong work ethic, common sense, and courage. I like well-rounded teachers. An interest or ability in sports is a great help to the school.
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?
I don’t recruit. I don’t use the diocesan system. I hire teachers I know and respect, and those who come to us because they want the opportunity to strengthen their craft as a teacher.
As for what teachers are seeking, the culture with faculty is key. Our teachers are friends; their work is collaborative. There is no infighting. Our teachers have freedom and good material. They have room to succeed or fail. They know they must take initiative and responsibility for what they’re doing and challenge themselves to get better.
I try to pay a competitive base salary and offer what I hope their pay will end up being through increases and bonuses.
Our faculty goes the extra mile. They love the subject matter and freedom to teach. They appreciate the mentoring they receive here.
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?
We generally require middle school teachers to be formally trained in liberal arts. That being said, disposition is more important than formal training, especially for lower school teachers. All of our teachers receive regular training once they are a part of the faculty.
We can’t train for disposition. When we hire, we look for a sincere love of learning, capacity for friendship, appreciation for contemplation, and ability to handle challenges. Our teachers must be joyful and courageous. They must delight in good things. They must love freedom. They must have a capacity to discover Christ in the world and to stir the imaginations of children to do the same.
Our interview process includes discussions with our assistant headmaster and me. When possible, we observe teachers in the classroom. We review references. Most teachers come to us because they have been recommended by someone close to us.
How do you train teachers and what have you learned about teacher training?
Teacher training is essential. We provide opportunities for regular training—to discuss pedagogy and absorb tips form master teachers—throughout the year after school.
Most schools offer summer training and that’s it. That’s not enough.
During COVID, we were limited in what we could offer teachers. Moving forward, we will go back to once or twice-a-month, 90-minute liberal arts discussions, focusing on pedagogy, after school.
We will also have regular Professional Development opportunities led by our assistant headmaster and expert local teachers. Andrew Zwerneman of Cana Academy has been an important resource for us.
We use Master teacher – fundamentals. Nice complement to liberal arts training.
We offer Singapore math training once in the summer and throughout the year.
My assistant headmaster and I provide indirect training by observing and spending time guiding our teachers. I’ve learned that creating a culture of trust is key. It’s important to foster a disposition of expecting tough conversations, similar to what we need to do to help students grow. Having light moments is important too.
Our assistant headmaster was hired to mentor teachers. He oversees all aspects of teaching, from lesson plans to pedagogy to curriculum.
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?
Tuition revenue covers 80% of our budget. It was closer to 60% when I became headmaster.
Continued fundraising is vital to our school. We are building a culture where fundraising happens not only with current families, but with the broader community. Our mission is bigger. Our product is more than academics; it is the community of school and parish families. People are willing to support that.
How we do events matters. We think about the whole picture, from improving the look and feel of the school, to creating spaces for conversation. We are having success inviting community members to participate in the life of the school, so they feel a part of the mission.
What doesn’t work is handing off fundraising to the parent association. School leadership needs to provide the overarching vision of the school. There are a number of projects parents can run, as long as they transmit the vision of the school. Leadership has to be involved. This is especially true regarding campaigns and the cultivation of major gifts. Efforts need to be coordinated.
Catholic schools are no longer staffed by religious workers. We now have laymen educating our children. We have to pay them. We can’t have the mentality that teaching is a vocation of poverty. It’s detrimental to what we’re trying to accomplish. We have a beautiful, ambitious mission. We have the opportunity to save and transform the culture. But we will fail if we cannot pay excellent teachers capable of inspiring their students.
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?
Yes, I am the primary fundraiser. Formally, I spend five to 10 hours a week on fundraising. I plan to increase this to 10–15 hours when we launch a capital campaign. But I am always fundraising in some respect; I am always mindful of relationships that are important to the school.
We are building a team to strengthen our fundraising efforts. Fr. Pollard has been a great help to the school.
What have you learned about relationships with those who oversee your school (the board for independent schools, the parish for parochial schools, the diocese for diocesan schools)? 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?
We have a good relationship with our pastor and superintendent. Our superintendent appreciates our success. He would like to see more schools like ours emerge. We are having a Christian humanist moment. It can be seized, and it will change whole school systems.
The whole office of Catholic schools has been very supportive. We have a healthy dynamic between our pastor and school leader. That’s something they look for. We have been given a lot of leeway—more than I expected. Our superintendent is mindful of the importance of subsidiarity.
What is your school known for in your area?
We are known as a high-end liberal arts school with a great campus, nature studies (gardening), outdoor play, and teachers who go the extra mile.
What is your school’s greatest challenge?
Our greatest challenge is taking a school that has existed in one form for a long time, and transforming the culture. Change is hard for everyone. We have a lot of parents here who had become accustomed to fighting every battle and solving every problem for their children. We have had to educate parents in our approach to how to support them as primary educators. Children need to work through difficulties. They need to grapple and solve problems. You can’t hand a child virtue; he or she needs to see it modeled and practice it. The next two years will be solidifying years for us as we continue to expand the understanding of education and build out our mission.
What does your school do better than any other school in your area?
We search for wisdom with a love for our Lord that is natural, fostering joy and a community of friendship. Contemplation is a central ingredient that runs through the whole school.
What is the most important difference between your school and struggling schools?
Unity of vision: we are founded on Christian humanist principles that permeate all aspects of the school.
Share one custom that is unique to your school.
We have storytelling contests during our house competitions.
Share one resource that strengthens your school.
We have a unified faculty of friends who are professionally driven.
Share one tool—online or otherwise—that increases the efficiency or professionalism of your work.
Smore is an online design site that enables us to create attractive materials that convey the beauty of our school.
Share one activity you do regularly that makes you a more effective leader.
I engage in contemplative work—silent prayer, drawing, writing poetry—and it helps me see the world anew.