By Mark Apostolon
This year, Stockton’s iconic St. Mary’s High School is celebrating a milestone of 140 years with continued school spirit, reinvigorated commitment from alumni, and a recent exhibition at the Haggin Museum, entitled “Saint Mary’s: 140 Years of Milestones & Memories,” which featured memorabilia from school and athletic uniforms, to photos and trophies from the school’s archives. Those milestones are significant because on its 140th anniversary, St. Mary’s is still making memories for its alumni, and student body while continuing its legacy as an important pillar of the Stockton community.
It is not merely enough to talk about St. Mary’s significance to the community, the rate at which its graduates go on to college (which averages 99%, and was 100% for 2014’s graduating class), a student body that far exceeds the national average, or the accomplishments of its alumni who include Associate Justice of the California Supreme Court Carol Ann Corrigan, Stockton D.A. Covey Berger, two former Stockton mayors Gary Allen Podesto and Ed Chavez, attorneys, lawmakers, business leaders, NFL players and film actors. You have to understand and appreciate what it means that such a revered institution as St. Mary’s is not only has survived 140 years, but has thrived.
At a time when significant numbers of Catholic schools around the country are either struggling, having to close their doors, or merging with other parochial schools due to dwindling enrollments, St. Mary’s High School, with a student body nearing 900, is actively growing, expanding its curriculum, and re-training teachers in new technologies all to prepare current and future students for our new internationally-based world – a world far removed from the times that greeted the school on its opening day in 1876. As St. Mary’s current President and alumni, Peter Morelli, observed, “what makes me proudest is that we are a family. We provide a great education and a safe environment. The school has been a visible sign of Catholic education based on Christian principles – which means treating everyone with dignity and respect. Our students are caring; our faculty is compassionate; our campus is welcoming to all. One of the best things about St. Mary’s is that we have the freedom to pray.”
A big part of the school’s reputation comes from their indomitable sports program which is grounded in one unifying belief, that participation in sports develops so much more than learning how to win, it develops character. It is because of that belief that the school encourages students not to focus on just one sport, but to be a part of multiple sports as part of a balanced-life approach.
“It’s all in our Mission Statement to which we remain true,” Principal Kathy Smith says smiling, “St. Mary’s High School is dedicated to the academic excellence and value-based instruction that prepare each of our students for college and for a life that reflects Christian principles. We believe that human beings are the pinnacle of God’s creation on earth. We develop the total person – spiritually, intellectually, creatively, socially and physically.” Developing kids of integrity and character in conjunction with parents is one of St. Mary’s hallmarks, and the faculty lead by example.
“Be who you are, and be that well – I’ve counselled my students on that many times and if they can do that, they’re going to make,” Smith adds with pride. That pride is exemplified by the alumni who are not only a connection to the past, but also a great networking resource for the school and the students. They also trust St. Mary’s where it counts most – their children “We’re seeing families who’ve been enrolling their sons and daughters for three, four, even five generations.” That deeply rooted trust families have in St. Mary’s is not only because the strong moral compass that’s offered or the shaping of human values in young minds – although that is certainly a factor. It is also due to their comprehensive and expansive academic program – that includes 22 Advanced Placement College Preparatory classes – and that, unlike public schools, can be adapted and modified to meet the needs of our ever changing world, giving graduates a head start in college.
That means every student now have an iPad. Teachers are now going through a two-year training program on learning and understanding the various ways to use the iPad as a teaching tool. And where students once turned to the Guide to Periodical Literature to research topics for term papers, they are now learning how to use the internet and recognize reliable sources. “It’s a challenge today for teachers and parents. Today so many people have instant access to kids today through the internet, and it’s up to us to guide them so they know the difference, even just on an academic level, the difference between fact, deception and opinion. It’s about guidance.”
Guidance, above all else, may very well be the key to St. Mary’s success. Guidance not only of its students through the Catholic doctrine of service – making them aware of the “greater” in their lives and the community around them, which instills a sense of selflessness that harkens back to JFK’s “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country” – but guidance of the school and faculty itself, consistent throughout the years in how it embraces our changing world to remain true to its mission, to its families, to its students, and to its community.