In 1848, La Salle Academy became the first American school founded by the De La Salle Christian Brothers. Even that status was not a guarantee the boys’ high school would last forever, though. With enrollment waning a decade ago, the Christian Brothers made the difficult decision to move La Salle from its East Second Street home into the St. George Academy building four blocks north, where it leases space.
In many ways it was not an easy choice, but a necessary one, said Dr. Catherine Guerriero, who begins her fourth year as La Salle’s president in September. The opening of the school year will also coincide with an expansion of La Salle’s footprint in the building from two floors to three, and a host of other progress at the school.
The increased space “dramatically changes things,” Dr. Guerriero said. She spoke about the 10 new classrooms, plus a library, a chapel and a new music room for the resuscitated La Salle Band, the stuff of legend in the 1950s and 1960s before it went away only to return last September.
New classroom space is dearly needed. For the past two years, La Salle had waiting lists of 50 to 70 students, with freshman enrollment capped at 100 because “it’s all the desks I had,” Dr. Guerriero said. Total enrollment is now 375 students.
The students’ overall academic standing has improved dramatically in recent years from a C-plus to A-minus, she said. And they still come from across the city’s five boroughs, with two-thirds from Manhattan and the Bronx, almost another 30 percent from Brooklyn and Queens, as well as a smattering from Staten Island, Westchester, Long Island and New Jersey. Just over half the students are Hispanic and nearly one-quarter are African-American, with the remainder pretty evenly divided among Caucasians, Asians and multi-racial students.
In the 2016-2017 year, the Cardinals won five city sports championships for the first time, as well as a state federation crown in basketball.
As she describes the school’s leadership, Dr. Guerriero says she likes the “deep bench” she sees. Second-year principal Kerry Conroy is a 22-year school veteran who earlier served as assistant principal for academic affairs and guidance department chair. Other top performers are Mary Kenny, senior vice president of finance and administration, and Ismini Scouras, vice president for institutional advancement. The school raises enough money each year to allow for a needs-blind admissions process, Dr. Guerriero said.
The school’s board of trustees has a new chairman, Salvatore LaRocca, class of 1982, the vice president of global partnerships for the National Basketball Association.
Two De La Salle Brothers are currently on the faculty: Brother Anwar Martinez, F.S.C., is chairman of the religion department, and Brother Paul Cillo, F.S.C., is a religion teacher. “We’d love to have 20,” Dr. Guerriero said.
It should also be quickly noted that La Salle has quadrupled its after-school programs and clubs to 45 in recent years. It also has partnerships in place with a number of colleges including The Cooper Union, La Salle University in Philadelphia, Manhattan College and New York University.
Students are the best proof of a school’s success. This week I had a chance to speak by phone with two of La Salle’s upperclassmen, Daniel Baker, who will be a senior, and Mark Bermeo, who is entering junior year.
Daniel is a straight-A student planning to take AP government, English and calculus courses. He has been involved in La Salle Works, the school’s vigorous internship and apprenticeship program, since he was a freshman. Since January, he’s had an internship with the Leahey & Johnson law firm. “Being able to see the lawyers do their work, and to learn how to communicate like a lawyer, it’s been one of the best experiences I’ve ever had,” said Daniel, who has an interest in business and law and is exploring the possibility of attending Georgetown University.
He also said he recently encouraged a younger friend who is searching for a high school to give La Salle a good look. “La Salle offers students opportunities I wouldn’t have gotten if I didn’t come here,” said Daniel, who has commuted to La Salle from Middletown for the past year.
Mark is spending six weeks this summer in a STEM partnership program with The Cooper Union’s Albert Nerken School of Engineering located right in La Salle’s neighborhood. He’s working with four other students and a teaching assistant to develop a music utility app.
“It’s been a pretty intensive experience. It’s a lot of coding,” said Mark, who added his academic interests normally run more toward history.
Talk to Dr. Guerriero long enough and you start to believe that anything is possible at La Salle. The school’s narrative “gives lie to the story that this can’t be done,” she said.
On Monday, Sept. 18, the ceremonial ribbon will be cut on the third floor expansion, and Cardinal Dolan will come by to visit and celebrate Mass Nov. 1.
“It’s an exciting time at La Salle,” Dr. Guerriero said.