Welcome to St. Mary’s School! After teaching and leading St. Mary's for 33 years, our President Emeritus knows a thing or two about what makes St. Mary's unique in both Southern Oregon and in the world of independent Catholic schools. Here's Frank Philips' Top Ten List of reasons why St. Mary’s is a great place to be a student.
1. The Module System: We take the traditional 180-day school year and slice it and dice it in the best possible way for students, and in ways that other schools simply can’t match. Only two other, very highly-regarded, prep schools in the USA offer the module system. Students get six vacations throughout the school year that help overcome the boredom, fatigue, and often depression, that afflict students under the traditional school-year calendar. Within the module system, students choose from a vast array of intriguing courses, taking just 3.5 courses per day for extended class periods, and have personal, adult-like choice in designing their own education while guided by experienced and caring counselors and teachers.
2. The Peer Group: Sorry, parents and teachers, but the most important influence on children's intellectual and character development and their success in life, from ages 12 to 25, from post-elementary school right through young adulthood, is not you, but the peer group they are in, the other people of the same ages that they hang out with, study with, confide in, and count as their friends.* At St. Mary’s School, 100% of your student’s peer group is headed to college. As a private school, we also have the freedom to build our classes and our grade-level cohorts with the kinds of students for whom St. Mary’s School is a good fit. Like the fish riding the ocean currents in “Finding Nemo,” students are swept towards success simply by being in this peer group, whether they realize it or not at the time. In addition to this, with generous financial aid and with students from ten nations other than the USA attending St. Mary’s, all of our students are part of the most diverse student body in the region, an experience that will allow them to navigate the world at large successfully as adults and interact naturally with people from all over the globe, with widely varying points of view, and from all walks of life.
* For some research behind this, see The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do by psychologist Judith Rich Harris, 2009 edition.
3. Joy in Learning: “When I think back on all the crap I learned in high school, it’s a wonder I can think at all.” -- Paul Simon, Kodachrome. A walk around St. Mary’s School at pretty much any time of day will show you engaged students. Students are taking courses that appeal to them. These courses have been designed by teachers who are treated as individuals and intellectuals and get to offer their own courses, not teach to the test or to stultifying Common Core rubrics. Students get a firm grounding in the tried and true at St. Mary’s School, including challenging and comprehensive math and science courses. They can also discuss King Lear in the morning and be learning to cast molten metal in the afternoon. They can take Latin and become budding classicists, or they immerse themselves in Chinese and spend a term abroad at a St. Mary’s campus in China. The depth and interest of the curriculum at St. Mary’s is literally inexhaustible for students from Grades 5 - 12.
4. Success as Adults: It’s not hard to get into college. Some college somewhere is willing to admit any student with (and sometimes without) a high school diploma who is willing to pay tuition. It is hard, however, to earn a degree from a college and to become a gainfully-employed professional. Almost half of students who begin at four-year colleges or universities in America never complete their degrees, a national shame and an enormous waste of time and money. As Henry David Thoreau noted long ago, “college is an expensive game.” A 20-year study of St. Mary’s alumni revealed that 94% of our graduates earn their college degrees. Education and careers are changing, but the value of a college degree for a meaningful, interesting, and rewarding life is still absolute. A St. Mary’s diploma is as close to a guarantee of success in college and beyond as you can get.
5. Teacher Quality: If you want your son or daughter to become a skilled, successful volleyball player or basketball player or soccer player or golfer, you usually want coaches who know what they’re talking about, who have mastered the game, who have played the sport at a high level themselves, and who can teach a player how to rise to and succeed at that level. It’s the same with academics; it helps to have teachers who know from their own experience what it takes to get into and succeed at top colleges and universities. St. Mary’s boasts a faculty with undergraduate and graduate degrees from some of the best universities on the planet, from Yale, Stanford, UC Berkeley, Pomona, Carelton, Brown, Middlebury, Claremont, Notre Dame, Vassar, Tufts, The University of Manchester (England), Victoria University of Wellington (New Zealand), Philipps University of Marburg (Germany), and Zhengzhou University (China). St. Mary’s teachers have chosen to teach at St. Mary’s. They derive job satisfaction from the wide freedom they are accorded in how they teach their classes. They want to teach your children. They know how to prepare your students to become great candidates for, and to succeed at, the best universities.
Additionally, students across America earn merit-based academic scholarships at a much, much higher rate than they do athletic scholarships. Just 2% of students who apply to college in America earn athletic scholarships of any kind. Parents and students, often blinded to this fact, frequently pursue the will-o’-the-wisp of athletic scholarships to a disappointing end. St. Mary’s students on the other hand, while occasionally landing an athletic scholarship, are consistently offered millions of dollars each year in merit-based academic scholarships.
6. Character Development: Old fashioned virtues are not obsolete. Just as fire has been the same forever -- it burns hot and bright anywhere on the planet and always has for millions of years -- virtues such as hard work, kindness towards others, accuracy, meeting deadlines, honesty, thoughtfulness, acts of charity, and striving for personal, academic, and moral excellence transcend time, place, and cultures. They still make for a better person, a person who will live a better life and make life better for others as well. Religion classes, community time, and community service at St. Mary’s School reinforce these timeless values and help students make them an integral part of their personalities and behavior.
7. St. Mary’s History and Network: St. Mary’s School is the third oldest school of any type in Oregon, with a long list of distinguished alumni, many of whom were founding families of the Rogue Valley and have streets and other local place names memorializing their civic contributions. Our current alumni network includes professionals of all stripes all over the world who are always happy to mentor younger alumni and current students. It is an invaluable network for our students. Our international boarding program, with well-motivated students from ten nations, provides our local students with enriching and fascinating networking opportunities unavailable in any other local schools. Sister school programs in Germany, Argentina, and China also open up international networking opportunities for our students. And last, but by no means least, the large, diverse, and accomplished array of well-educated professionals whose children are currently enrolled at the school, makes St. Mary’s a community well worth embracing. It’s not hard at St. Mary’s to meet experts in medicine, finance, law, real estate, agribusiness, international trade, construction, computer science, engineering, transportation, the arts, and many other fields.
8. Athletics: With more than 40 teams fielded every year, with multiple state championships in a number of sports, and with 65% of the student body playing at least one sport, all St. Mary’s students have ample opportunity to learn the lessons of perseverance, commitment, practice, improvement, mastery, and the sheer joy of competition, teammates, and teamwork that are the rewards of interscholastic athletics.
9. Safety: In terms of facilities and the physical safety of our students, St. Mary’s School is very secure with a single point of entry, card-swipe only access to campus during school hours, a fenced perimeter, and security cameras that cover the whole campus. Better than that, however, St. Mary’s School, with just 500 students over eight grade levels, is small enough that we know all of our students well, that no student is just a number who might fall between the cracks, and that the students and adults on campus watch out for each other and report things if anything seems amiss. Not to jinx our school, but small and medium-sized private schools, for these reasons, have escaped the violence that comes with larger school populations, more crowded classrooms, teachers and staff with too many kids to look after, and places where disgruntled and angry students might fester unnoticed to a point of violence. In terms of the psychological well-being of our students, small class sizes, adults who care for the students and have the time to give them, and active and effective programs for our students’ social-emotional health, make St. Mary’s a “safe space” for students to be themselves. While it’s not impossible for a student to have a bad day at St. Mary’s, the school is always quick to respond to correct misbehavior, help students work through interpersonal issues, and to foster a caring atmosphere.
10: School Size and Class Size and Teacher Loads: Goldilocks continues to be a popular analogy for a reason. Things are best when they are just right. Astrobiologically-speaking, the Earth is a “Goldilocks planet,” in a habitable zone just the right distance from the Sun. A “Goldilocks economy” features moderate growth and low inflation and is just right for the vast majority of people. High schools of between 200 to 500 students are in the Goldilocks zone as far as school populations go. St. Mary’s stays steady at about 160-170 students in the middle school (Grades 5-8) and about 330-340 students in the high school (Grades 9-12). These are great numbers for many reasons. Everybody can get to know each other and every student is known well by several adults on the campus. The student body is small enough to give students many opportunities to assume leadership positions in student government and in the numerous clubs, teams, and academic competitions we offer. On the other side, the student body is large enough to field competitive teams in almost all sports and to avoid the “social stagnation” that can come in very small schools. Exhaustive studies by the Gates Foundation also show that academic accomplishment and college success are much higher in schools of this Goldilocks size. This is precisely why some big high schools started to try offering a “small schools” experience by creating artificial divisions within their big schools. That has not worked out, and the Gates Foundation gave up on funding those efforts. Those schools that tried it are still big, but now they are big and splintered in weird and awkward ways.
On class sizes, the best studies I have seen peg them at 15-23 students. Fewer than 15 students in a room diminishes the interplay between students that enlivens the classroom and helps learning. More than 23 students means the teacher can’t get around the room to help all the kids, and the students can’t participate in class effectively, get a word in edgewise, and get the attention they need. These numbers hold true in the American system where we value differentiated learning, open discussions, lots of questions, and getting to know each student as an individual. I’ve been in many Chinese classrooms of 50-70 students that have high academic achievement, but the culture is completely different. Getting the answer right and mastering the material is almost a matter of life and death in China, or of a life with some human comforts versus a dead-end life of hard work and mere subsistence. Students are motivated by fear, anxiety, competition for scarce resources among 1.4 billion people, pride, Confucian values, Draconian penalties, public accolades and public shaming, and super-demanding parents. This cocktail of fear, tradition, the desire to “win” at school, and negative reinforcement works in getting students to learn math (sometimes), but a typical American kid would last about four minutes in a Chinese classroom. So at St. Mary’s, our school-wide average of about 18 students per class is in the perfect Goldilocks range for the nice, humane way we teach.
Finally, a single human being can perform only so much work every day. I managed a manufacturing plant for several years. We had time and motion studies that helped us set the speeds of various industrial machinery, which allowed us to expect and to predict reasonable output from our workers. For teachers, such time and motion studies have shown that their own performance as teachers, and, more importantly, student achievement, fall off a cliff after a high school teacher has more than 65 students to teach each day. It maxes a teacher out to get to know 65 kids, grade 65 assignments in a timely fashion, and prepare good lessons that engage all 65 students. St. Mary’s teachers, in the Module System, as a schoolwide average, carry a student load of just about 40 students per module. This is an incredibly good number. Public school teacher loads, due to budget cuts, have insidiously crept up to 160 to 200 students. Many teachers have six classes with about 30 students in each class for a 180-student load. It’s humanly impossible, despite the quality and dedication of the best teachers, to teach this many students effectively. It’d be like asking a doctor to see 100 patients a day, take good, personalized care of their health, and maintain accurate and detailed medical records on all of them. I’ve listed this point last in my Top Ten list, because I’ve seen that parents don’t often care or think about this “student-load” issue. In many, many ways, it could be #1 in this list as it constitutes a huge, positive difference in the student experience at St. Mary’s and accounts for much of the high academic achievement at the school.
At any rate, with that, I’ll sign off on my Top Ten list. Again, welcome to a great school, our school, your school, St. Mary’s School!