Every day at Saint Dominic Academy, students are encouraged to move above and beyond the expected to discover the unexpected – those talents and abilities they may never have known they possessed but for the grit and courage to push beyond their personal thresholds. For the school, it seems fitting that this year’s National Catholic Schools Week theme is “Raising the Standards in Faith, Academics, Community, and Service.” At St. Dom’s it is simply not enough to meet the standards.
In his annual report letter, Principal Don Fournier said, “What we do at St. Dom’s is measured by the grades students earn, the colleges they attend, trophies won, awards received, but more importantly, by the core values we represent. Our students receive an education that instills a strong moral character; an ongoing developing faith; an appreciation for the individual and an ingrained sense of responsibility to make a difference.”
There are statistics to support St. Dom’s success rate in preparing their students academically for the world that awaits them beyond graduation. Of its seniors, 95 percent move on to college and all graduate within four years. Their younger students rank above the national averages in the NWEA testing, the same testing used by the public school system. Many of the children attending their pre-school program are reading before they enter kindergarten.
Across the student body, St. Dom’s staff work together to create a culture of learning, an appreciation for hard work and its rewards. Don Bilodeau, assistant principal of the Lewiston campus, attributes its academic performance, in part, to that culture and an “envelope of safety and love,” in which students can test their boundaries academically and socially in a structured environment. In the younger grades, programs including Sunshine Math, a product first introduced to Bilodeau during his public school experience, contribute to the building of academic confidence. Sunshine Math provides students the opportunity to develop logical thinking skills and challenge themselves mathematically at their own pace.
Consistency in teaching aids in student success. St. Dom’s English and language curriculum begins with kindergarten and follows the students through 12th grade. Every grade focuses on one component of the whole. Material from one grade leads to the next until graduation. The result has been students moving into the world beyond school with finely tuned writing and comprehensive skills to support them into the future.
According to the assistant principal of the Auburn campus, Joline Girouard, the need for courage in preparedness is greater in higher grades. “We encourage our students to exceed the expectations of state requirements for credits for graduation. In math, three credits are required; we suggest four or more. We look for three or more in language and four to five in science. In the long run, it pays off,” said Girouard. Additionally, students may earn college credits in English, language arts, literature, calculus, physics, biology, U.S. history, and art all while in high school.
Statistics and high performance test results aside, a Saint Dominic Academy student’s education is not complete without faith, community, and service. At St. Dom’s, it is stated, “Christ is the reason for this school.” Both Bilodeau and Girouard agree. Said Bilodeau, “Love is how we treat others. We are followers of Jesus and [in this school] loving one another is our focus.”
The school day begins and ends with prayer. With Jesus as the daily example, the bar is set high for students and staff alike. Community service is required of all students on some level. In the younger grades, children participate in food, clothing, and dime drives to stock food pantries. There are even times when the children themselves will see a need, on television or in the newspaper, and suggest a project to help. The idea is to teach children that they are part of a bigger community and that we must help one another.
An even greater commitment to community is expected from the high school students, however. Anne Pontbriand, senior involvement director and religion teacher, said each student is required to complete at least six hours of community service per semester.
“Freshmen must complete 12 hours, sophomores 16, juniors 20. Seniors must complete 120 hours. They can do their service in hospitals, schools, nursing homes, nonprofit agencies, or other outside organizations,” explained Pontbriand. The students must keep a journal of their community work illustrating how they feel about the work, what impact they have had, and what the work has meant to them.
Mission to Mississippi is a community project on a grander scale and a volunteer effort for St. Dominic Academy since 1997. The opportunity to travel to Mound Bayou, Mississippi, the last community in the U.S. to be freed from slavery, is introduced as a volunteer project at the end of junior year. It is not simply a recruit-and-sign-up session. Students wanting to participate must complete their 120 hours of community service plus additional hours above and beyond, here in the local community, to earn the right to attend. In addition, throughout the year, students must participate in a variety of fundraisers to raise money for the trip.
“This is not a luxury trip,” said Kathy Little and Claire Gagnon, group leaders for the mission. “We travel by bus. It’s about service and sacrifice 3,200 miles from home.” Both agree it is a rigorous undertaking for seniors who are already on academic overload, but they are expected to pull their weight all year for the privilege to serve.
The Sisters of Mercy at St. Gabriel Mercy Center in Mississippi coordinate the work for the students. Roofing, painting, building, clean up, and community visits are all a part of a volunteer’s eight-hour day. Students may help in classrooms; some may work with adult learners. The year’s fundraising profits serve as a monetary gift to allow for their work to continue while the students are gone.
What Pontbriand, Little, and Gagnon hope students take away from this experience is a true sense of giving and sacrifice. And they hope the impression continues to move these students to do good works beyond St. Dom’s doors. “We started the fire,” said Gagnon. “We hope they will go on and keep the candle burning.”
Indeed, the school does hear from graduates who have thanked their teachers for pushing them to achieve, for expecting hard work, and for shining a light on the importance of giving back. Mary Caron is a recent Saint Dominic Academy graduate who is now studying at the University of Connecticut in the School of Pharmacy. In reflecting back on her years at St. Dom’s, she now sees just how well she was prepared for her college experience.
“At the time, I thought the work they made us do was hard and useless, but it all turned out to be relevant. When I got to college, a lot of my friends were stressed out about the work, but I knew I could take anything they [my college teachers] could throw at me!” Specifically, Caron recalled a 15-page paper she had to complete for her AP literature class at St. Dom’s. “I hated it but after I was done, I felt so accomplished. I haven’t had any papers since that required such in-depth background work.”
Caron’s faith has remained her constant, reinforced by her days at St. Dom’s, and carried with her today. Her volunteer work (she too attended Mission to Mississippi) has raised her awareness to the need of a greater world. Today, she donates her time through UConn’s Student National Pharmaceutical Association, an organization that fundraises for research and provides disease awareness to the community; she looks forward to a day when her profession allows her to help people every day.
Regardless of job or profession, there are specific expectations of all people contributing to a peaceable world. Respect of self and others, accountability in word and deed, generosity of spirit, when cultivated at home and nurtured in the classroom, make for tomorrow’s leaders. High academic standards do not solely influence the education of children and young adults. Amid all the testing, the truest test of merit will always be how people conduct themselves in daily life, how they respond to challenge and adversity, and how they treat their fellow man. That is the life test for which Saint Dominic Academy’s students are well-prepared.