A high school graduation ceremony is always an exciting event. At Archbishop Stepinac High School in White Plains, this year’s commencement exercises for 177 graduates on May 26 were not just a time of academic accomplishment and new beginnings for the school’s students.
In many ways, the 67-year-old boys’ school is experiencing the same things as it proceeds on a promising course. In the 2008-2009 school year, the freshman class consisted of just 139 students; last fall, that number rose to 224. Total enrollment also was up to 788 students in the current academic year, compared to 577 just four years ago.
The increased numbers are welcome, of course, but they do not represent the whole story. Father Thomas Collins, the school’s fifth-year president and a Stepinac man himself (Class of 1979), said in an interview that the larger student body “brings a dynamic to the school that wasn’t there before.”
“You can feel that spirit in the building when you are with a group of kids,” said Father Collins, an archdiocesan priest who has served in several positions, including religion teacher and associate dean of students since coming to Stepinac in 1995.
The enrollment increase did not just happen. In fact, when the archdiocese made the decision in 2009 for archdiocesan high schools to become independently chartered, there were no guarantees the change would have a positive effect at Stepinac.
The school’s newly independent status has been fostered by a board of trustees, chaired for the first five years by attorney William F. Plunkett Jr., whom Father Collins had described last spring as “a visionary.” When Plunkett’s term as chair was complete last year, he was succeeded by Kevin Keane, Class of 1974, a certified public accountant who is managing partner of O’Connor Davies LLP, an accounting firm.
Speaking to CNY last week, Keane said he “owed a lot to Stepinac” for the academic and athletic environments he experienced as a student. “I made some of my best friends there,” he said.
His motivation today is simple. He wants to help today’s students from families in Westchester and the Bronx “experience some of the great things I did.”
Along those lines, the board of trustees has formed a strategic planning committee that last weekend brought together “stakeholders” in the school community for a two-day retreat where they discussed various core components of Stepinac life from enrollment to finance and academics to religion, all with a goal of “getting Stepinac to the next level,” Keane said.
One thing that already has received rave reviews is Stepinac’s technology program. About half a dozen years ago, vice principal for academics Frank Portanova said that he began noticing more and more students using laptops and other electronic devices. But they were still weighed down by backpacks filled with heavy textbooks. At the time, Pearson was offering digital companion texts to their printed books. “The response to that was overwhelming,” Portanova said.
Stepinac went on to become the first school in the nation with a digital textbook library. The school has stayed on the leading edge of the digital education revolution by taking learning well beyond the textbook to include many other digital resources.
All the changes flipped the learning environment upside down and give Stepinac students early exposure to educational experiences that they will encounter in college, said Portanova, a member of the Class of 1993 who teaches AP Literature to seniors.
Representatives of high schools from California, Tennessee, Georgia, Massachusetts and throughout New York have trekked to White Plains to see first-hand what Stepinac is doing, Portanova said.
While academics are primary, Stepinac’s impressive array of extracurricular activities include a full roster of well-regarded athletic teams as well as a theater program that stages groundbreaking productions. Portanova serves as the director.
Nicolas Tabio, a junior at Stepinac, actually has scored in both athletic and dramatic pursuits. He’s a left winger on the school hockey team, though a fractured ankle curbed his play this season until the playoffs began. This spring, he played the villainous role of Curtis in the production of “Sister Act.”
“It was a great experience, to say the least,” he said.
Nicolas said teachers at Stepinac know their subjects well and do not hesitate to extend themselves for students. “Those types of relationships make the learning so personal,” he said.
He considers his fellow students an intelligent group. This year, he and a classmate, Mike Bilotta, were able to work together to get an oratory and debate club up and running.
“It’s competitive but in a beneficial way,” he said. “We help each other strive for greatness.”