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Dominican Life | USA
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St. Mary’s Dominican High School: A Wave of Success

Cindy Thomas, (center) President of St. Mary Dominican High School, shares pictures of the school and the recovery effort with Janet Brown, OP, and Beth Murphy, OP

After Hurricane Katrina took New Orleans by storm on August 29, 2005, a tsunami of organizational skills rose up from the ranks of St. Mary’s Dominican High School administrators, teachers, staff, and alumnae. This visionary storm created an unprecedented wave of successful rehabilitation at the school.

Two years after Katrina, except for the stackless library or the lack of shelving in the band and art rooms, visitors who were unaware might not realize the school sustained $4.5 million in damages after the category five hurricane, when levies holding back Lake Ponchetrain were breeched flooding much of the city, including the St. Mary’s New Orleans Dominican-sponsored school on Walmsley Street in the city’s Carrollton district.

The day after the storm a school parent reached its president, Cynthia Thomas in Atlanta, where she evacuated to before the storm. “‘Do not be overwhelmed,’” she recalls him saying to her. “‘You will have a lot to face and we are going to be with you.’”

About 18 inches of water filled the school, minimal in a city that had significant portions under 10 feet or more of fetid, toxic sludge. But it was early October before administrators were let back into the school. By that time, mold had colonized the once proudly immaculate building, so that nearly all of the schools’ contents were lost.

By September 2006, barely 13 months after Katrina hit, the school community dedicated Siena Center, a brand new, collegiate-level athletic facility that sports a state-of-the-art dance studio and training facility. Prior to the storm, Thomas said, she was frustrated with the construction project because it was falling behind schedule. What should have been an enclosed building by August 2005 was at that time only a concrete and steel frame.

Students use the school athletic track

“Thank God we were late with construction” Thomas says, as she fumbles with a ring of keys to grant her guests entrance to the new facility.

The delayed construction project brought another hidden blessing to the school. The Siena Center contractor quickly switched projects, transferring to recovery efforts and securing the services of a professional recovery service. The school reopened on January 17, 2006, less than five months after the disaster.

Thomas acknowledges that it was the professionalism of the school’s administrators, teachers and staff, and the dedication of Dominican families, alumnae, and other supporters that made such rapid recovery from crisis possible.

Key to the success, she suggests, were the six organizational principles that guided her team through the recovery process: “Prayer, people, program, policy, property, and preaching,” Thomas enumerates. “And always people first.”

Thomas worked long distance with her administrative team and the school’s board of directors to coordinate recovery efforts. Her priorities were to make contact with school families, ascertain the level of damage to the school, and craft a plan for recovery.

Within three weeks of Katrina nearly all of the 1,065 Dominican students were located by school staff, and the process of visiting the school families in their evacuation locations began. Thomas and the other administrators want to be sure the school families saw a face from Dominican in their time of need.

Weekly board of director’s meetings via teleconference began the recovery process. It was at one such meeting that the board made the daring decision to continue paying salaries for all of their employees while simultaneously either refunding or deferring tuition for school families. “It made no sense,” Thomas acknowledges, yet she and the board were convinced it was the right thing to do. “We’ve been blessed by that decision,” she adds. A year and a halfafter the tragedy, by January of 2007, school enrollment stood at 87% of pre-Katrina levels, most of the faculty and staff returned, and the esprit d’ corps couldn’t have beenhigher.

The generosity of other supporters has been a major factor in the school recovery process. Grants came from such sources as the Laura Bush Foundation, Ford Motor Credit, and the pop singer Josh Groban. A development consultant who had previously worked with the school offered the services of his firm, pro bono. With his help, within three weeks of the storm and before most other institutions had been able to assess their damages, Dominican had an emergency appeal letter in the mailboxes of their alumnae, who responded generously.

Dominican also benefited from the generosity of other Dominican high schools and communities around the U.S. About 180 students from St. Mary’s Dominican transferred to two schools in Houston run by the Houston Dominican Sisters, St. Agnes and St. Pius X. No one was turned away for lack of ability to pay and the students were provided with uniforms and free meals for the duration of their stay.

The technology staff at St. Pius was crucial to successful student location efforts. They hastily built and hosted a website that became the centerpiece of the efforts to contact the Dominican High School diaspora. Students at Rosary High School in Aurora, Ill., raised more than $10,000 to replace the books in the library, everyone of which was destroyed by mold. Other Dominican congregations also reached out, supporting the students and faculty with prayer, fundraising efforts, or pro bono grant-writing.

In her own reflection on her experience of Katrina and its aftermath, Thomas says she feels like the Dominican High School community is doing their best to preach the message of paschal mystery by their response to the crisis, immediate and on-going.

Perhaps the greatest challenges the school faced as a result of Katrina are behind them, but by no means is the struggle over. Enrollment is in good shape but is not yet at pre-Katrina levels.  It may be a challenge to keep teachers as families are faced with making other choices based on economic necessity, energy bills are three times the level they were in the fall of 2005, and it is still an open question whether the city will be able to work its way back to life.

One of Thomas’s ongoing frustrations is that “the system is not working” on behalf of the well-being of the city of New Orleans. She can point to the reality of the school community and see that. Thirty-four of her teachers lost their homes in Katrina and some of them are still living in FEMA trailers. She says she doesn’t have all the answers, that she and the school staff are still finding the way through the post-Katrina reality, but she is sure about one thing. “I am doubly committed to Catholic education,” she says emphatically. “We need people with the power and the morals to make a difference and change systems.”

Story Contributors: Beth Murphy, OP (Springfield), Janet Brown, OP (Grand Rapids), JoAnn Niehaus, OP (Houston), Joan Smith, OP (Sparkill)

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St. Mary Dominican High School website

Enrollment picking up at Catholic schools, universities in Gulf Coast

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Public school enrollment



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