By Gordon Dritschilo
Even by Vermont standards, a graduating class of 20 is small.
At Mount St. Joseph Academy, the 20 seniors who collected diplomas this year signaled growth. Just three years ago, the city’s one Catholic high school was down to a total population of 66 students. Salutatorian Molly Giancola said during graduation last week that when the Class of 2018 were freshmen, there were only 11 of them.
Next year’s enrollment, according to Principal Sarah Fortier, is up to 105.
“We have had 50 inquiries for freshmen,” Fortier said last Wednesday. “If everyone came who inquired, we’d have 50. We’re hoping for 30.”
The majority of those students are local, she said, which school officials hope marks a resurgence of what was once a local powerhouse. MSJ was much bigger in its heyday. The Class of 1968, which received its golden diplomas at last week’s graduation ceremony, was 149 strong.
Fortier said the decline never quite reached the point where closing the school was discussed.
“We were very fortunate, because we have such a passionate alumni base,” she said. “We have a lot of donors and the Diocese of Burlington gave us their support at that time. Obviously, they’re all very happy now.”
Fortier, herself a legacy at the school, said it mystifies her that most MSJ alumni are no longer sending their children to the school.
“It’s a very foreign concept to me,” she said.
Paul Gallo, a member of the school’s board of directors, put it down to a generational culture change.
“Our parents were more value-based, spiritual and all that,” he said. “We live in a world now where there’s two or three pairs of vehicles in the yard — snowmobiles and boats and all that. I think this next generation is coming back.”
So, what is fueling the resurgence?
“I think MSJ offers a superior education,” Fortier said. “It’s a great place to be, and a great community to be in.”
Also, Fortier credited the private school’s continued use of a traditional grading system with lettered grades, rather than using the proficiency-based system to which public schools are shifting.
“If your grade-point average is a 4.0, colleges know what that means,” she said. “Nobody knows what proficient means.”
Fortier said the school has been marketing effectively. Those who have been to a movie in Rutland in the last couple years likely sat through an MSJ ad, and Fortier said the school uses magazine and radio advertising, too. The most effective advertising, she said, has been word of mouth between local children, which she said again comes back to the quality of education.
“I think a lot of it is the benefits MSJ has,” enrollment coordinator Bill Bruso said. “People like the smaller size, the attention they get.”
Information on standardized test scores at the school was not readily available last Wednesday, but Gallo pointed to 95 percent of graduates going on to college as evidence of the quality of education.