High school principal Iswari Natarajan works with her calculus students
BY FREDA MIKLIN
St. Mary’s Academy (SMA), located on 24 acres at 4545 S. University Boulevard in Cherry Hills Village has operated in that location since 1951. The school was started in 1864, before Colorado was a state, by three Sisters of Loretto from Santa Fe, N.M. Their mission was to open “a select school for girls,” based on the Loretto School values of faith, community, justice and respect. These values have survived and sustained the path of SMA. Lest anyone forget, they are painted on the wall as you enter the lower school building.
Much has changed since the early years. Though it is still a Roman Catholic institution that “celebrates God’s presence in Eucharistic celebrations and other prayer opportunities,” half of SMA’s 667 students in grades PreK-12 practice faiths other than Catholicism. Boys are accepted in all classes through eighth grade, and the school is developing a program for all grades focused on computer science and design thinking to foster critical and creative problem-solving. They have a well-equipped robotics program for all grades. At the middle school level, SMA is introducing an online writing portfolio in recognition of the ever-increasing importance of writing as a universal skill.
What stands out at SMA is its pervasive focus on humanistic values and citizenship, something lacking in much of our discourse. At SMA, these values are incorporated into virtually all its activities and teaching. Community service is a part of the curriculum in every grade, even PreK. This year, eighth-graders are being asked to address the question, “Who am I? What makes me who I am? How do I make a positive and powerful difference?” as an interdisciplinary exploration in classes on language arts, social studies, religion and science. Middle schoolers are looking at the question, “How to respond to everyday prejudice, bias and stereotypes.” SMA plans to include parents in that conversation in the future.
With a student body that is 26 percent diverse, 31 percent of SMA students receive scholarships. As is the case with many colleges, the majority of scholarships are needs-based, with a smaller number awarded for academic achievement. Annual tuition is in the $20,000 range, varying by grade. Faculty and staff at SMA have an average of 18 years of experience in their position and 10 years at SMA. Current enrollment at SMA is 199 in the lower school (grades PreK-5), 217 in middle school (grades 6-8) and 250 in high school. There is plenty of space for students and programs on the school’s campus. SMA’s newest building includes a large community room that can be used for non-school civic functions. Having it on campus provides another opportunity for SMA students to learn about being global citizens, an intentional goal of the school.
Academy President Bill Barrett talks with students in his office.Photo courtesy of St. Mary’s Academy
We attended an all-high school assembly, where girls looked like any others at area schools, many wearing sweatshirts and leggings. There is no specific dress code for high-schoolers. Male teachers talked to students about the importance of November being men’s health month. Social studies teacher Pamela Applegate introduced student leaders to explain the upcoming spirit week. When Applegate spoke about an impending school dance, the girls howled and cheered. As would be done at any high school, students were reminded that it is unacceptable for them or their dates to partake in any “extracurricular” (drinking or substances) activities before coming to the school dance. She went on, “If that occurs, you and your guest will be asked to leave, and we will have a serious conversation Monday when you return to school.” The girls pledged out loud to follow the rule.
Iswari Natarajan is SMA’s high school principal. Like most other faculty members, she performs multiple functions. At SMA, teachers are also college counselors and coaches, which gives them an opportunity to develop stronger relationships with students. In addition to her duties as principal, Natarajan teaches AP Calculus and Pre-Calculus. When The Villager visited her, two students were working on calculus problems on the blackboard in her office. She was asked why SMA ‘s high school was not coed, as are the lower grades. Natarajan said that she attended an all-girls high school in India and believes it allows girls to be fully expressive and empowered. She added, “At SMA, all girls are leaders and all leaders are girls.” She went on, “It is a safe space for failing. Success is not about talent or IQ, it’s about grit and the will to pick yourself up when you fail and keep going.” She believes that that is more easily accomplished in an all-girls school.
Bill Barrett, academy president, is a highly trained and educated teacher and administrator. He holds an MBA, an M.A. in special education, and an M.S. Ed. in counseling and personnel service. Barrett joined SMA last year after spending 11 years as head of the upper school at Rippowam Cisqua School in Bedford, N.Y. He and his wife, Jennifer, are the parents of three sons, all adopted from Ghana. Barrett said that he chose to come to SMA because it is a close-knit community, family oriented, student-centered and focused on leadership skills. Above all, he was drawn to SMA because it is a place centered around “character and values in the service of others.” He said that SMA students and faculty are closely connected to SMA’s sister schools in Pakistan and Guatemala.
Like any school, SMA encourages enrollment at the start of the school year. However, they are there to serve the community and available when they are needed.
The walls remind students of SMA’s values of faith, community, justice and respect.Photo by Freda Miklin
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