It works! A Principal’s Principles - Cardinal Newman Society

It works! A Principal’s Principles

As my school is gearing up to celebrate our 25th anniversary, it is a natural time to start reflecting, to give thanks, and to consider what we did right that brought us to this point. This is an especially poignant reflection in an educational environment where schools are either closing or else adding younger and younger grade levels, or importing foreign students in order to keep enrollment numbers steady. I say this because, today, in this challenging Catholic school market, our school is thriving more and more. We have been full for the last five years and count a waiting list of 25 percent. What did we do? What do we do?  Do we have anything to share?

In my reflections, five areas stand out as essential to forming the culture of the school. It is this culture which is the foundation of the school’s attraction to families. It is this culture which results in the joy that is predominant among students, faculty, administration, and families. Joy. Joy comes from God, and it is to Him that we are dedicated, fully, as a school. It is because of serving Him that the board of our school committed to these basic principles years ago when they hired me as a principal, and it is these which have guided me in my administration of the school community.

  1. Hire for mission. This meant hiring teachers and administration staff who believed in the ministry of education and who have the personality and intellectual/cultural formation to help form the children. That is not found in an education degree; it is found in the right kind of person who is committed to truth, beauty, and goodness, and who has a knack for the art of teaching. A deep-held principle of the hiring process is that in hiring for mission, the principal is also forming a faculty of friends. This friendship is based in the highest things, first in love of God, then love of the children and their families, and love of truth, beauty, and goodness. To encourage this spirit, we have many faculty gatherings, seminars, and discussions.
  2. Pay whom you hire. The board committed, early on, to a very regular and healthy increase of salaries based on the principle that if it is the right thing to do, God will provide. He did, in spades. Part of the financial responsibility of the school is to pay a just wage, but this has also been balanced with a reasonable teaching load. The just wage allows families to live on the teacher salary, buy a home, and raise a family. They may not get rich, but they should not be poor. A reasonable load allows room for ongoing fresh learning and the faculty time for leisure and, most importantly, time with their families.
  3. Grant full leadership authority to the principal. Transitioning from a founding board that usually performs many operational duties of a school can be difficult, but humility and trust win the day at St. Augustine Academy. This school’s board handed over operations and did not meddle. That allowed the whole community to understand the unity of leadership and, thereby, avoided the typical divisions that occur in many schools. It is not usually money that disrupts or destroys schools, it is people holding on to their own self-interested pieces of power. There is also a huge element of success that owes to the school and principal not being bound to the datacrats and burdens of many public-school-like bureaucratic elements that have come to burden even our private schools. This is choking our principals, teachers and curricula. Hire a principal for mission and let him govern.
  4. Limit the size. Every time it comes up for discussion, the board resoundingly reaffirms the school’s commitment to a limited class size, and school size. This is based on the ever-increasing importance of relationship as an essential element of a highly effective school – especially a Catholic school. As with every decision, there are consequences to each path. The smaller school limits some benefits that come with a larger school, e.g., sports programs. However, the trade off for individualized student attention and formation, St. Augustine Academy felt, was totally worth it. The more distant the world becomes with the ever-increasing technological allure, the more essential real relationship becomes in an education based in Christian anthropology. Children need teachers, mentors, alter-Christi’s—not another device that can keep larger classes seemingly engaged.
  5. Serve the Catholic family. The final piece of this puzzle was to have a school deeply committed to sound principles rooted in the Catholic intellectual tradition, and offer that to Catholic families. The rub to this position is that many families have a wide variety of personalities and intellects within a single family. St. Augustine Academy committed itself, early on, to serve them all. The school would have great teachers and the greatest ideas, so that serves all the highest intellects well. At the same time, the school’s great teachers are loving, mission-driven Catholics who pour out their hearts to improve every mind and heart in their care. Not overloading teacher schedules gives them enough breathing room that they have the energy and desire to go above and beyond what duty demands, and that usually means for the students. Supporting Catholic families, especially ones which are generous to the gift of life, means the school needs to have an affordable tuition scheme (ours is currently the lowest tuition in the Archdiocese).

This has been a recipe for beautiful success. Now many of these topics may be headlines we hear in passing, or those being touted by the latest “marketing campaign,” but with our school it really is true, and it goes deep to the core of every aspect of what we do. As Archbishop J. Michael Miller points out in his work, The Holy See’s Teaching on Catholic Schools, “Catholicism must permeate… the entire curriculum.” Permeate… the entire curriculum. This can only be done when it also permeates a school’s mission, faculty, and culture. These are the principles that this principal follows.

MICHAEL J. VAN HECKE, M.Ed., a seasoned headmaster and educational speaker, is also the founder and president of The Institute for Catholic Liberal Education and the Catholic Textbook Project. In their spare time, he and his wife farm avocados.

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