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. “The number one goal in working with boys is to create an authentic relationship. Boys experience the adults around them before they ever experience an actual teaching lesson. So, our focus is on building that relationship, and we go from there with everything else — the academics, the social, the emotional, spiritual development.”
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. “I can go to my teachers for anything. Any advice, any help on math or science or any subject. They’re always here to help me, and they care about my education,” says St. Agnes Academy senior Mya Rogers.
St. Agnes Academy-St. Dominic School teachers are passionate about what they teach, but they’re even more passionate about nurturing their students, adds St. Agnes Academy Upper School Fine Arts Department Chair Ann Neal. “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. “I think one of the most important quotes that we teach the students is ‘be who God meant you to be, and you will set the world on fire.’ And that’s what we want them to understand,” says Kathy. “They don’t have to be the best in the world. We want them to be the best for the world.” 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. “I love going to mass on Wednesdays with my friends. I’m not Catholic, but my friends [make] me feel like we all belong because we all share the same love of God,” Mya says.
- Study: The school encourages students to pursue excellence in their studies, develop leadership skills and embrace a life-long love of learning. After completing the rigorous and well-balanced curriculum, students are well-equipped for the challenges of the next level. “After years of challenging academics at St. Dominic, I was ready to tackle freshman geometry and lengthy English papers. My time management skills were well-developed, so balancing high school and extra-curriculars came easy,” said David Martin, a 2017 graduate of St. Dominic School.
- 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: 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.
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 2. 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.”
“My junior high years at St. Dominic hold a special place in my heart. With a small co-ed class, I formed bonds with all of my classmates and teachers,” explains David. “To me, the teachers made the difference. They were incredible at their job, in addition to being supportive, captivating and inspiring.”
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.
“My daughter went to a wonderful public school, but when I had the opportunity to bring her to St. Agnes as a freshman, she said yes,” says Jennifer Lovelace, Director of Student Life & Leadership. “And when I say it has been life-changing for her, I am not overestimating the impact of the relationships. When I ask her, ‘Would you have been the same person if you had continued in your educational track?’, her answer is, ‘Mom, no. I am so changed. Having gone to an all-girls, small Catholic school that saw me and valued me and nurtured me, it turned me into a star!’”
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.”
*Source: American Psychological Association
This article is sponsored by St. Agnes Academy-St. Dominic School. All photography provided by St. Agnes Academy-St. Dominic School.