Peter Crawford is headmaster of St. Jerome Institute in Washington, DC.
Is your Catholic school independent, parochial, or diocesan?
The St. Jerome Institute is an independent private school, not currently associated with a parish or diocese.
What grades does your school serve?
We are a high school serving grades 9-12.
What is your vision for your school? How do you think of your mission? What do you hope to accomplish?
The purpose of the St. Jerome Institute is to offer teenagers a formation of beauty within the heritage of the Catholic tradition, which speaks to their lived experience and frees them up to wrestle with the great truths and mysteries of the world. Eventually, what we hope to accomplish is their sanctity.
St. John Paul the Great tells us in his famous Letter to Artists, “All men and women are entrusted with the task of crafting their own life: in a certain sense, they are to make of it a work of art, a masterpiece.” If our children have been entrusted with creating a great work of art out of their lives, our goal is to offer them the sort of formation most meaningful in answering this call. At SJI our fundamental driving question is, “What does a child need to flourish, to be happy? To become a good man or a good woman?” Eventually this means that we are asking the question, “How can we help our students be good artists of the masterpiece of life? How can we aid them in realizing their destiny, so that they can become the very best expressions of themselves? So that they can achieve true personal excellence and, ultimately, sanctity?”
At the foundation of their SJI education, we strive to cultivate virtuous habits, an intuition for what is good, and memories of beauty in our students. All of this leads to a foundation on which we can build a deeper understanding and a greater wisdom—ultimately, for Christ. We believe that a good education turns the student towards the fingerprints of the Good, Beautiful and True within the natural world, the poetry and learning of our tradition, in physical striving, in song, in friendship, and of course in prayer. This education cultivates a sacramental wonder and awe of the world.We aspire to be a school where things come alive for the student. This in turn makes them long for sanctity.
This is the traditional sense of what a liberal arts education is. From Plato’s allegory of the cave, to St. Paul’s exhortation that we be children of the light, a liberal arts education has always entailed a formation, a turning, a freeing up of the whole person from the shadow realm of cheap appearance and the matrix of base appetite. Our audacious goal, then, is to offer a formation that culminates in sacramental freedom.
How do your school’s culture and curriculum differ from government schools in your area? From other Catholic schools in your area?
The difference between our culture and curriculum and that of other conventional schools is fundamental. Before anything else, the St. Jerome Institute is a community with a shared culture. It is the people, their spirit of friendship, that is the most significant and informative lesson any student will receive. It permeates their formation at a deeper level than any number of facts they may learn. Students reflect the culture which surrounds them. As Aquinas observes, “We become what we behold.”
At SJI we know that education is first and foremost about this deep interpersonal formation. The secret to such formation rests in our faculty. Teachers are the living lessons for our students. We searched high and low for those teachers whom we knew would not just be able to share expertise, but would also be able to model a love of learning, a deep humility, and a great passion for life. As impressive as each of our teachers is individually, they form an even more impressive community that is a true witness for our students.
The SJI curriculum has been thoughtfully crafted to give students the most robust, philosophically rich, and age-appropriate high school education imaginable. Our goal is to offer the best of a traditional education with a sensitivity towards the distinct needs of a modern student. This intentional and unique curricular design has allowed us to develop a fully integrated curricular experience for our students. Integrated subjects allow our students to have a wholistic experience, as opposed to an arbitrary one. All the individual classes have been planned so that they are regularly in dialogue. Students start their ratio units in the Mathematics Seminar and promptly enter the music classroom to explore the circle of fifths. As students explore the navigational challenge of ascertaining longitude in Philosophy of Nature, they travel with Odysseus across the sea back to Ithaca in Humanities. As they contemplate the restless heart that longs for God in the beginning of the Confessions, they consider Caravaggio’s masterpiece “The Conversion of St. Paul.” The classes are integrated with one another so that each school day acts like a progression of chords. Together, the entire school day becomes one single lesson, as does the school year and the entire four-year curriculum.
In the Humanities Seminar, students read significant primary sources from authors such as Dante, Plato, Aristotle, Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, Cervantes, Vergil, Jane Austen, Homer, Sophocles, Aeschylus, Aquinas, Augustine, Thucydides, and many more. Students memorize poetry from Hopkins, Shakespeare, Byron, Yeats, Milton, and can sing the first lines of the Odyssey in Ancient Greek. Students receive serious formation as young writers.
The Seminar in Natural Philosophy develops the themes taken up in the Humanities through a rigorous and meticulous study of the natural world. Each unit begins with a motivating question or problem that prompts curiosity and invites critical thinking and careful questioning. Students discover empirical and mathematical methods through laboratory and field work focusing on direct observation, experimentation, methodological precision, and the tools of modern science. They also develop an understanding of the nature and limits of science through readings in the history and development of fundamental principles, seminar discussions, and the application of theory to labs and studies. Natural Philosophy is integrated in a special way with the Seminar in Mathematics so that students have the skills they need to solve specific problems at the right moment. Natural Philosophy covers biology, chemistry, physics, and astronomy in a single blended class, so students return to the disciplines in increasing depth throughout the four years.
The Seminar in Mathematics explores the theme of the Humanities Seminar in a unique way. Its attention to the beauty and structure of numerical and geometric relations, as well as its intense focus on clarity of thought and expression, aims to build both skill in analysis and rigor in thinking. Each topic in the Mathematics curriculum begins with a tangible observation of the natural world, a question arising from Natural Philosophy, or mathematical speculation itself, and uses these explorations to discover skills and techniques. Following the theme set in the Humanities, mathematics considers the fundamentals of numeracy, analysis, geometry, and logic in increasing complexity throughout its four years. By introducing difficult topics early, students grow accustomed to challenging concepts so that when they are reintroduced later, they have a much better mastery. For example, in the first year (“Exodus and Odyssey”), students begin by discussing the concept of number, which relies on place value. This is an ideal time to introduce bases and exponents, as well as the logarithm. However, the presentation is limited to small, integer valued exponents. The foundation is laid for revisiting exponents and logs in the second year (Nature), during the study of exponential growth and decay, where fractional and negative exponents become important in the study of populations. Through exercises such as this, the seminar integrates mathematics into art, music, rhetoric, natural philosophy, and theology. The Seminar in Mathematics meets daily.
Beyond Humanities, Mathematics, and Natural Philosophy, students enjoy a rich array of formative experiences. A visit to the school will find students sketching charcoal portraits, practicing calligraphy, recording the movements and patterns of the night sky, building their own water clocks. Students engage in Gregorian Chant instruction, travel through Hebrew, Greek, Roman, Early Germanic and Christian, Medieval Early Modern and Modern history. They contemplate Caravaggio, explore mysterious cave paintings, and relive the discovery of perspective in painting. They study both spoken and grammatical aspects of Latin, encounter "Socratic movement riddles," run long distances, and are provoked to do many a pushup in Gymnasium.
How often do your students attend Mass?
Our students currently go to Mass once a week on a regular basis and also attend Mass on Holy Days of Obligation.
How else is the Catholic faith integrated into the school program?
In the most obvious sense of faith integration, our school comes together each morning and sings the Divine Office together. We pray before each class, attend adoration, and make Confession available to students. We celebrate major liturgical feasts and offer a theology class. We have had members of religious orders come to visit the school to give talks and we look forward to launching our retreat program. We also have special seasonal projects. As I write this response, the students are currently learning pysanky, the prayerful art of painting eggs in the tradition of icons for Easter.
One of our teachers posed this question: if there were somehow an impossible, horrible certain epiphany that all the truths that we hold dear as Catholics were proven false, how would your Catholic school change? At schools that this teacher had attended previously, there would no longer be a religion class. Perhaps the name of the school would be altered. But the mathematics would remain unchanged. Science class would not be affected. At the St. Jerome Institute, everything would change. Most likely we would have to close. The Catholic faith is integrated into every moment and every aspect of the school, and it would be impossible to share the full extent of this saturation without simply describing the whole school.
Are subjects—such as mathematics, science, literature, and history—integrated in any way?
The great curricular charism of the St. Jerome Institute is integration. Our entire curriculum has been designed so that every class is in chordal harmony with every other. The experience of the student each school day is that they have encountered a meaningful whole. We hope that graduates will be able to look back on their time at SJI as an integrated symphony.
What is your school’s enrollment?
At this time (our second year) we have 26 students. We anticipate having 40-45 students enrolled for next year.
Has enrollment been steady in recent years?
Yes. At this point, we have enrolled three years’ worth of students and have grown from 15 students in Year One, to 26 in Year Two, to an anticipated 40-45 students next year.
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 at St. Jerome Institute is $15,000 for the 2021-2022 school year. We offer a sibling discount of $1,000 per student. Ninety-five percent of our students receive some form of tuition reduction, with an average grant of $5,000.
How involved are parents in the life of your school?
We aspire to have a highly involved parent community. We have had good parent attendance at our curriculum nights, coffees with the headmaster events, and feast day celebrations. Parents have volunteered to lead extracurriculars or assist in other ways, such as writing copy or offering photography services for the school.
As a second-year school, a significant portion of our history has been spent in COVID-19 conditions. Unfortunately, the current restrictions in place have hampered our ability to involve parents as much as we would like. We look forward to having tremendous parent participation when restrictions have been lifted to a greater degree.
Are you generally satisfied with your school’s teachers? How so?
Very much. The teachers at the St. Jerome Institute form a deeply committed, passionate, and talented faculty. They have contributed to a unified vision of our school identity, and take the craft of teaching seriously. Our teachers clearly serve the students out of a deep charitable care for their good.
Are parents generally satisfied with the education their children receive at your school? How do you know?
Feedback from the parent survey, conferences, headmaster coffees, and casual conversations all indicates that SJI parents are extremely pleased with the education their children receive. Perhaps most importantly, many of our parents have given unsolicited, powerful testimonies regarding their experience at the school to prospective families.
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?
A school is fundamentally a community before it is a model or a curriculum.
Community is realized in presence. Whenever possible, communication with members of the community should be in person. This in-person interaction should not merely be reduced to necessary communications. A headmaster should be superabundantly present.
The health and sense of community of the school flows from the faculty. The priority of a school leader should be to attend to the faculty. A good headmaster makes time every day to be a presence in the faculty office, to share a sense of humor with the teachers and to be available to their cares and concerns. School community entails a shared vision, so it is important that all the teachers are actively and consistently informed by the SJI vision in their interactions with students, parents, and each other. This sort of unity requires headmaster presence. Formally, teachers meet regularly with me to discuss weekly observations and have a lengthy annual review discussion.
Likewise, a headmaster must be present to the students. Teachers need to be encouraged to spend time with students outside of the classroom and should love being with students. It is important, as the headmaster, that I also teach a class. I make it a point to greet every student every day, and I regularly meet with students during the school day, often as mentor but just as likely in a friendly and casual manner. At this point, most students will go out of their way to speak with me. Important formative moments include our occasional assemblies, when I speak to students in a more formal and elevated capacity.
Parents are most difficult to interact with personally on a regular basis because they do not attend school. It is a good practice, therefore, for a headmaster to be present during drop-off and pick-up as this is, sadly enough, the significant firsthand experience parents have of the school. Aside from this time, a headmaster should be present at events and make it a point to interact with parents. In terms of more formalized communications, parents receive a weekly newsletter and have the opportunity to interact with the entire faculty together during conferences.
How do you utilize volunteers in the operation of your school? What has worked well in making volunteers effective?
As a smaller school with a proportionally large faculty and a significant amount of our history under COVID regulations, we have utilized fewer volunteers than most schools up to this point. However, we have used parent volunteers to lead extracurriculars or offer other services for the school. SJI’s board is a volunteer entity, and their support has been extremely valuable to the school. We have also hosted a volunteer Catholic University of America practicum student this year.
Volunteers should be carefully vetted, as should anyone who represents the school. Often volunteers need to be given clear instructions if their work is to be effective. The truth is that sometimes the good to be gained from volunteers is less about the labor provided and more about widening and engendering the community of the school.
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.
My first desire would be that families follow the prayer life of the school, whether through the Divine Office proper or Magnificat. Next, parents are encouraged to join the SJI Society for the Renewal of the Catholic Mind to participate in the shared intellectual life of the school.
What do parents value most in your school? How do you know that?
Parents are most excited about the deep spirit of friendship fostered at the school amongst the students. They are also extremely supportive of the rigorous academics of the school.
My knowledge of the parent perspective stems from our parent survey, feedback during coffees with the headmaster, annual conferences and, perhaps most informatively, the regular casual conversations I have with parents.
How do you recruit new families to your school? What resources do you use to tell 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?
In terms of first exposure, we visit every accessible K-8 Catholic school in the area to create exposure for SJI amongst Catholic elementary families. To gain this access, we have developed relationships with many pastors and principles of local schools. We also post ads in church bulletins and other periodicals and attend relevant public events. We ask members of our community to post in all the local listservs and advertise on Facebook and Instagram.
However, the greatest method to get the word out is through the positive word of mouth of school families. Our goal is always to get prospective families to visit the school. We believe that our school speaks for itself and seeing it in person will be more convincing than any article or talk. We also want to get families to our Open House event in the Fall. We have developed most of our own materials and resources.
Families are first and foremost interested in a school that is not at odds with their family culture. Parents want their children to be challenged and supported simultaneously. Families want their sons and daughters to be passionate about their work, to have a sense of wonder before the majesty and mystery of the world, and to have a sense of purpose for their lives. A school that can help to foster moral formation will be extremely attractive to parents who are a natural fit for SJI.
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?
Most of our families have required no convincing regarding the goodness of the formation offered by our school. Questions or concerns tend to come from a few prospective parents and rarely come from current parents.
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?
Significant conversation is entailed in the application and enrollment of a new student. We are looking for families that earnestly care about their child’s character and want him or her to grow. We want the majority of our families to be practicing Catholics and to support and understand the traditional form of education we offer, which is gravitated by a pursuit of the True, the Good, and the Beautiful. While there may be many differences between our families, we want all of them to be community minded, to understand education as a formation in reality and to support the meaningful challenges we offer their children and share in our final desire for their child: sanctity.
Student applicants must submit an essay, transcripts, two letters of recommendation, and complete an online application. Every applicant is also required to complete a 60-90 minute interview with the headmaster.
What do you look for when hiring teachers?
Hiring is the most important moment of my work. A school can only ever be as excellent as its faculty. My goal in interviewing a teacher candidate is to discover if he or she will be a good addition to our community and whether they will be an excellent role model to the young men and women in his or her care. I am looking for teachers who have a capacity for wonder (intellectus), a deep humility, great courage, and a thirst for excellence. Different teachers may have different teaching personalities, but all successful teachers ought to have a level of gravitas, an ability to establish order in their classroom, and a touch of stage presence. They should be strong leaders with a great capacity for charity.
How do you recruit new teachers? What resources do you use to tell 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?
So far, many high-quality candidates have sought us out on their own initiative. I often hire less experienced but formable and passionate teachers, so I have fostered relationships with certain Catholic colleges (i.e., Thomas Aquinas College, Steubenville, University of Dallas, Ave Maria University, Wyoming Catholic, Catholic University of America, Baylor Honors).
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?
A good question to ask when considering a candidate is whether this person is the sort of person you want your school’s student to become. If the answer is no, then no amount of expertise or experience can make that candidate a good hire. Strong candidates must be humble, passionate, courageous, and fundamentally formable. They must be philosophically aligned with the vision of the school but also model the love for the true, the good, and the beautiful which we seek to foster in all of our students.
The hiring process includes a full day at the school. Candidates have two 90-minute interviews, observe several classes, meet with students, sit down with teachers, give a teaching demo, and receive constructive feedback regarding their demo lesson.
Eligible candidates should be Catholic, community-minded, have a certain orthodox philosophical orientation, and be capable of teaching the rigorous curriculum of the school.
How do you train teachers and what have you learned about teacher training?
As headmaster, my job is to be a teacher of teachers.
Training at SJI begins with 4 weeks of intensive work in the summer. We also have weekly faculty meetings that include training and semi-regular professional development events that allow us to focus on specific topics. However, the most important teacher formation stems from weekly class observations with written feedback.
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 41% of our budget for the 2021-2022 school year will be covered by tuition revenue. Fundraising is key to our success as a new school. While tuition will cover a higher and higher percentage of our budget as we come to scale, fundraising will always be an important part of our work. Up to this point, inviting donors to belong to a membership society that acts as an intellectual community sponsored by the school, seeking out donors to contribute to gifts for the school, and asking families to contribute to scholarship drives have been the most effective ways we have been able to raise money. Our goal is to establish a culture of giving around the school. In the post-COVID years to come, we hope to sponsor events and galas that will contribute to our fundraising efforts.
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?
I am the primary voice and face of fundraising at SJI. However, we do have a full-time Development Director, as well as a board subcommittee focused on marketing and development. The weekly amount of time I spend on fundraising truly varies depending on the season. Our Development Director’s primary focus is on this important area.
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?
As an independent private school, SJI is overseen by a board. This relationship has been positive. To give some general observations regarding situations I have seen elsewhere, I know there can be challenges between a board and a school if the board is disconnected from the lived reality of the school or if board members allow conflicts of interest to interfere with their objectivity regarding the school. It is important that board members visit the school, sit in classrooms, and get a firsthand experience of the school so that the school is not simply a theoretical idea for them. I think a board needs to be professional but able to work together in a spirit of friendship. Ultimately, a board’s goal should be to serve the good of the school.
It is important that a school not see its board as an alien entity, that it encourages the board to witness the life of the school and foster a relationship of trust with board members. It is important that there be a clear distinction between the responsibilities of the board and the responsibilities of the school.There will always be trouble when a board is either too distant or begins to habitually micromanage the school. Subsidiarity is an important goal to maintain for healthy board-school relations.
What is your school known for in your area?
We are thought of as a thriving new school that has established a beautiful faculty and student culture. We are acknowledged to be a rigorous classical high school with a bold new curricular vision, especially in mathematics and the sciences.
What is your school’s greatest challenge?
The most practical challenge facing any small high quality high school in its founding years is a challenge of scale. To have a reasonable class load for teachers that entails fewer preps than actual classes taught, a school needs to have two sections for each grade. For the cultural health of the school, therefore, it is important that we grow. On the other hand, this growth needs to be thoughtful and strategic.
What does your school do better than any other school in your area?
We are the only classical, liberal arts, Catholic high school in the DC area. Our program is integrated so that all of our courses are woven together into one narrative. We view teaching as an art form and dedicate a great deal of time to the craft of teaching with a special focus on Socratic pedagogy.
What have our questions not covered that would help clarify the success of your school?
As a faculty we understand the St. Jerome Institute to be our communal work of art. This means that we must take the craft of our art seriously. We practice a distinct pedagogical approach within the Socratic tradition. That our teaching approach is Socratic means that we practice a manner of teaching through questions that allows the students to be active participants of their own education, within a community of learners, in a posture of wonder before the deep realities they are engaging. While there are deep philosophical reasons for teaching in this way, we also take the very practical skills and know-how of this approach seriously. We believe, for instance that teaching primarily through the mode of asking permits students to actively wrestle with their studies. But what constitutes a good question? How can a question or series of questions directly lead students to engage with the reality they are studying? Are there ways of asking or types of questions that allow students of different levels and abilities to simultaneously engage subject matter? What are the risks of teaching through asking and how can these risks be mitigated? In other words, what are the distinct strategies and tactics of our craft? These are the sorts of considerations that the faculty of SJI take seriously. We ponder these matters as a group, lead each other in lessons, and are in a constant state of discussion about the craft of our art.
A good additional question might be: What misconceptions are there about your school?
Because our classes are rigorous and visitors are impressed when they visit, we have acquired a reputation for being rigorous and academic. While it is true that we are a rigorous school, we believe: (1) Kids in our society have been vastly underestimated in terms of the challenge they can rise to. Many of the students we currently serve were quite average academically when they applied to SJI. (2) Our school is in no way a “nerd school,” but a human school, where young men and women will be lovingly challenged to be the best expression of themselves intellectually, morally, and physically. This vision does not fit into the easy categories of school typically available to teenagers, so our task is to effectively showcase how we are breaking the mold.
What is the most important difference between your school and struggling schools?
We know the true essence of a school is its community of persons, not its model, booklist, or curriculum, as important as these are.
Share one custom that is unique to your school.
Once a month we celebrate a liturgical feast with competitive “games of renown”, live music, and feasting.
Share one resource that strengthens your school.
We use Jupiter Grades as our online gradebook.
Share one tool—online or otherwise—that increases the efficiency or professionalism of your work.
I have developed a prioritization tool I call the “action pad,” which is drawn from the Getting Things Done efficiency approach.
Share one activity you do regularly that makes you a more effective leader.
The key to school leadership is presence, and I work hard to be present at events as well as before, during, and after school in the hallways and classrooms, always in a relaxed and joyful mode.