A great educational model: Bishop Kearney High School
I returned to Bishop Kearney High School in Rochester, New York, on September 23 and 24 for my 50th high school reunion. It was a magical and life-changing experience.
Bishop Kearney was one of two “co-institutional” Catholic schools opened in 1962. The other, Cardinal Mooney, closed down many years ago. The boys, taught by the Irish Christian Brothers, and the girls, taught by the Sisters of Notre Dame, were in separate classes, but shared facilities and after-school activities. The divider between the two sides of the school was often called “the Berlin Wall,” because the nuns guarded access to the girls side of the school to minimize unsupervised contact between the boys and the girls.
I received a very good education, although we did have the facilities to make the sciences as engaging as they became for me in adult life. Several of my teachers inspired me. Two of them, Marc Zicari (my debate coach and an English teacher) and Brian Goonan (formerly Brother Goonan, my Spanish teacher), with whom I recently made contact again, exemplified the values that drew me to Bishop Kearney. We also had an incredibly inspirational athletic coach, Carmen Urzetta, who has dedicated 52 years of his life to the School and is still actively supporting it today.
What I realized, in hindsight, was that many of the brothers and lay teachers were very young and, in many instances, still developing as adults when they joined our faculty. The brothers had grown up in tough urban environments, mostly in New York and Boston, and had very little understanding of the social mores and values that formed us in the Rochester of the 1950’s and early 1960’s.
As a result, Bishop Kearney fell short of its aspirations in certain ways. Sports and the marching band drew far more of the acclaim, funding, and time of the faculty and administration than did academic-oriented extracurricular activities. I felt that the debate team on which I was a member did not get the resources or recognition it deserved.
Bishop Kearney was not racially diverse, and had one African American in the entire school when I graduated. Although the nuns were very dedicated teachers, and, in many instances, were older and more mature than the brothers, they operated in a culture dominated by the male administrators that did not enable the girls to fulfill their full potential.
Bishop Kearney, like most Catholic institutions of the time, did not prepare us for the turbulent, anti-religious environment we faced on colleges and university campuses in 1966 and beyond. I was particularly unprepared socially and emotionally to be at the University of Wisconsin, one of the most radical campuses in America.
I left Bishop Kearney behind physically and psychologically for over 40 years. No one contacted me and I made no effort to re-establish contact.
Bishop Kearney almost shut down during those years, but was rescued by Thomas Golisano, the founder of Paychex. The Irish Christian Brothers sold the school and it became a Golisano Partner School, which meant that it received significant financial support from Mr. Golisano.
Today, Bishop Kearney delivers exceptional education at less than half the cost of what the Rochester Public Schools spend to deliver a sub-standard education. 100% of its students get accepted to college, and, as importantly, they are academically ready and do not need remedial education, as do many public school graduates who go on to community colleges. If anything, it is better academically now then it was then in preparing its students to compete in a global economy.
It is racially and ethnically diverse, and is co-educational. The Berlin Wall is gone. Most importantly, it does a superb job educating women and enabling them to aspire to great careers and lives. They are treated as equals.
Bishop Kearney is housing and educating a traveling girls’ ice hockey team representing 10 states and Canada in the renovated residence areas the Irish Christian Brothers used to occupy, which adds more continental geographic diversity. It has begun to educate boarding students from China, South Korea, and other countries and is becoming more globally diverse. It is symbolic of Bishop Kearney’s transformation that it is at the cutting edge in supporting the kind of girl’s athletic program that Title IX of the Civil Rights Act, enacted in 1972, aspired to have schools create.
What most impresses me now is the resourcefulness, innovation and passion of the Administration and faculty of Bishop Kearney. Its lead science teacher does not have funding to equip the physics and chemistry labs with equipment, furniture, supplies, and kits purchased from educational suppliers, so he either acquires or builds them from surplus items other organizations no longer needed. Other teachers with whom I have spoken are equally dedicated and are paid less than their counterparts at the failing public schools, but they stay because they know that they are making a difference.
Bishop Kearney is now exploring work-study programs to improve the educational experience and give students a better understanding of the range of career opportunities that might be available to them. The School has found a creative way to provide these students with diverse internship opportunities.
Bishop Kearney has a visible commitment to the community. On September 24, the students were managing an electronics recycling collection event in Bishop Kearney parking lot. There is far more outreach into the broader community today than was the case 50 years ago.
As for the Reunion, I was pleasantly surprised by the degree to which many classmates who were far under the radar during high school had amazing adult careers and lives. I particularly experienced joy in seeing the women I did not know during high school blossom into wonderful, sophisticated adults that have contributed a great deal to society and raised wonderful families. One of them, Suzanne Bartash Spall, emerged as a leader among the alumni in marshaling support to keep the school going.
I spent a disproportionate amount of time at the Reunion talking to some of these women, because their depth was not obvious to me 50 years ago. Some of that was due to the separation the nuns enforced.
However, we were also in high school at a time before the 1964 Civil Rights Act really had its eventual impact on giving women equal employment opportunity. Our female classmates did not have the female role models with business, political and non-profit leadership careers that later female graduates would have.
Many married at a very young age, and had children early in their marriages. I was struck by how many have children who are over 40, and multiple grandchildren, whereas my oldest child turned 30 this past June. Many had productive careers, but started them later than my male classmates. More importantly, they were very successful parents and community leaders.
The most joyful and pleasant part of the experience was the realization that virtually everyone I met seemed secure and self-confident. Because I routinely spend much more time around younger people elsewhere, I absorb their energy, but also have to deal with their insecurities. It is refreshing to spend a weekend around people who are not restless and dissatisfied, but have found their place in life.
Bishop Kearney is a far better school today than it was then, but its teachers and administrators then did the best they could, and they produced a far more exceptional group of graduates under difficult conditions than I could have imagined at the time.
As I reflect on this weekend, I realize that Bishop Kearney was the right place for me to have spent my high school years, because it was a “pioneer” experience. We were creating something that had not existed in Rochester, a new Catholic school that attempted to educate boys and girls together and to get them deeply grounded in strong and supportive moral values.
The Bishop Kearney motto, then and now, was “Do all things well.” Whether I realized it or not along the way, that aspirational statement became the way I tried to live my life. I may not have succeeded in that impossible goal, but I gained a lot over my lifetime from attempting to do so.