What does it mean to be seen? Search the internet, and you’ll find many articles that address our need to be accepted, to have a name and a voice, to be recognized and valued. Step onto the campus of St. Agnes Academy-St. Dominic School, and you’ll find a place where “being seen” is more than just words — it’s a deeply ingrained practice, part of a school culture that seeks to know and celebrate each and every student. Through small class sizes and individual attention, students are encouraged and given the tools to explore and develop their unique gifts and talents. With enthusiasm and care, teachers look beyond their lessons to make sure they truly know their students and build the connections that make a positive difference for the future.
“We have a strong ethic of caring, and our goal is to foster growth and joy in our students,” says Kathy Boccia, Dean of St. Agnes Academy Lower School. “Our students will be joyful about learning only if they feel loved and known.”
The school’s focus on relational teaching is paramount, says Chris Burke, Dean of St. Dominic School. “Relational teaching engages and connects, and to do that, teachers have to know something more about their students than their grade point average. There’s a wonderful quote from Maya Angelou that says it well: ‘I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.’”
Studies back up the idea that students who have supportive relationships with their teachers will have a higher level of achievement*. Teachers who form and nurture such relationships with their students create an approachable environment that meets not only academic needs, but emotional and developmental ones as well.
And they take the time to prepare students for life outside of campus. “My teachers relate their lessons to real-world issues and encourage us to think on a deeper level,” says St. Agnes Academy senior Denise Geronimo, Upper School SGA President. “For example, our Calculus teacher taught us about decision making during a lesson on probability. And our AP Government teacher used Super Tuesday as the starting place for a great class discussion. They teach us to think, not just regurgitate what someone has taught us.”
St. Agnes Academy-St. Dominic School teachers are passionate about what they teach, but even more passionate about nurturing their students, adds St. Agnes Academy Upper School Fine Arts Department Chair Ann Neal. As the drama teacher and theatre director, she’s found the other teachers willing to step in and help whenever needed – something she sees across every academic area. “The most important thing here is the community,” she explains. “The close-knit bond of the students, and the support students have from teachers, truly sets us apart.”
Another difference is how students are taught to relate to the wider world. “A worldly philosophy teaches children to try to be the best in the world. Our philosophy is to teach them to be the best for the world,” says Kathy. To that end, the faith-based school rests on four Dominican Pillars:
- Prayer: As a Catholic school, prayer is the cornerstone. Students attend weekly mass and participate in prayer services and class retreats. “Prayer buddies” are assigned with older students guiding younger ones during time spent together. The school prayer – and indeed the school environment as a whole – calls for the promotion of justice, respect and peace. The school accepts and welcomes faculty and students of all denominations. “Faith fosters the feeling of community on campus and motivates service to others,” says Ginger Jordan, Chief Communications Officer, “Prayer is a part of being welcoming and inclusive.”
- Study: The school encourages students to pursue excellence in their studies, develop leadership skills and embrace a life-long love of learning. “The small ratio of teachers to students means focused attention on each individual,” says Ginger, who graduated from St. Agnes Academy in 1983. “There’s no opportunity for a student to get lost in the crowd. Our teachers make their subjects exciting and classrooms are open for lively discussions, which fosters a genuine desire for learning.” After completing the rigorous and well-balanced curriculum, students are well-equipped for the challenges of the next level.
- Community: The focus on campus is the celebration of brotherhood and sisterhood, through the classroom, sports, student organizations and social events. “Everyone has a place here,” says Ann. “If a student can’t find an opportunity, we will make one.”
- Service: “We are taught that we all have gifts from God, and those gifts are meant to be shared,” says Denise. From an early age, students lead and participate in community service projects, which becomes very much a part of their identity throughout their school years and beyond.
Twice a year, students from kindergarten through 12th grade are nominated by their peers for the Dominican Torch Awards, which recognize the students who best exhibit the four pillars. Presented during all-school Mass, the awards are a way for students to support one another. “We encourage students to notice one another, to take care of and care about each other,” Ann explains.
Unique among single-gender schools in Memphis, St. Agnes Academy-St. Dominic School is a community of two schools. Learning begins in the Early Childhood program which brings boys and girls together in a faith-based, nurturing environment beginning at the age of two. From kindergarten through sixth grade, the St. Agnes Academy Lower School and St. Dominic School provide the single-gender education that allows students to thrive in an environment tailored to the different ways girls and boys learn, behave and develop emotionally. Seventh and eighth grades are co-educational.
“Junior High is the perfect time for co-educational classes,” Kathy explains. “The knowledge students have gained about who they are as learners is very valuable, and they can apply that in a co-ed setting. It gives them a comfort level with the other gender, and the academic diversity gives them the ability to see other points of view. And it gives them another perspective before they go into a single gender High School.”
After completing eighth grade at St. Dominic many boys choose to attend an all-boys high school. Girls attend St. Agnes Academy Upper School, where they grow into confident young women, buoyed by close-knit peer and teacher relationships.
“At first, I wasn’t sure I wanted to go to an all-girls school,” said Denise, who started at St. Agnes in the seventh grade. “I thought it didn’t reflect the ‘real world.’ My attitude changed when I realized the value of an education that focused on girls’ needs, goals and issues, and realized I am actually being given the tools to handle the real world.”
The goal is an atmosphere where everyone feels like family and differences are celebrated, Ann concludes. “It is our mission as teachers to prepare our students for what lies ahead, to get them ready and let them go, knowing that they will be okay. More than okay – we know they will do amazing things.”
*Campus may be closed right now due to COVID-19, but learning continues. St. Agnes Academy-St. Dominic School transitioned to remote learning on March 18 for all students grades PK2-12 and the community continues to be vibrant and connected. *
This article is sponsored by St. Agnes Academy-St. Dominic School.