It has been “the little school that could” since the days Jesuit Father Harry Tompson first dreamed of creating it.
The legendary Jesuit High School president/principal, Immaculate Conception pastor, retreat director and heat-guided-missile homilist envisioned The Good Shepherd School on Baronne Street in the CBD as a targeted educational tool to lift children and even families out of poverty.
Ten years later, Good Shepherd is still going strong as a free-tuition Catholic elementary school, whose graduates are now entering their junior year in high school. Good Shepherd is one of 65 Jesuit Nativity Mission schools across the country.
While Father Tompson created the vision for the school, he did not live to see it open its doors to 30 students in August 2001. He died of cancer on April 5, 2001, and his funeral Mass at Immaculate Conception Church three blocks from the school attracted such a crowd that speakers were set up outside the church for people to participate in the Mass.
“I will never forget that before he died, he looked around at all of the board members and said, ‘If this school fails in the future, it’s going to be because I failed,’” said Ronnie Briggs, school president. “And then he pointed at each of us: ‘Are you going to let it fail? Are you? Are you?’”
Father Tompson’s presence looms larger than ever at the school, which has 90 students participating in an intensive, year-round program that includes extended classroom days (7:45 a.m. to 5 p.m., providing about 20 percent more instructional time), two Saturday seminars a month for students and parents, anda two-month summer enrichment program.
Maximum enrollment of 90
It even survived Katrina, with a small twist. With finances especially tight after the storm, the school determined its maximum enrollment would be 90 students, with 15 students in each of six grade levels. This year there will be 15 students in kindergarten, first, second, third, sixth and seventh grades (no fourth or fifth grade). By the 2013-14 academic year, the school’s grade structure will be kindergarten through fifth.
“When Father Tompson started this thing, there were maybe one or two Jesuit Nativity Mission schools that started in kindergarten,” Briggs said. “The rest were all middle schools. Harry said, ‘That’s too late.’ That’s why we started with kindergarten.”
Emily Paul, who took over as Good Shepherd principal in 2009, said she is amazed at how much progress children can make when they are placed in a loving atmosphere combined with high expectations.
“I believe in what this school stands for,” Paul said. “We take children where they are and move them along. Children need to have a nurturing environment, and sometimes that’s not the home. Sometimes school is the only nurturing environment that these children have. It’s amazing to see what these children accomplish with a little love and a little care.”
Most of Good Shepherd’s students qualify for the state’s Scholarships for Educational Excellence program, which allows families who reside in Orleans Parish and who are earning 250 percent below the federa poverty line to attend private schools. Ninety percent participate in the free or reduced-fee lunch program.
Parents or guardians are required to offer 40 hours in service in exchange for the free tuition. The service hours can cover activities such as cleaning the school, attending field trips, working on teacher projects and attending parental education classes.
Happy, nurtured students
“They see this school as worthwhile,” Paul said. “They see it as, ‘Someone is investing in my child, and I need to be on board with that in whatever way I can.’
I can see students who when I first came in had low self-esteem or low self-confidence, and by just sitting and listening to them and being a body they can lean on and count on, they just blossom. They come to school smiling and leave school smiling – sometimes too much. But you can see the effect you’re having on these children in their behavior and academics.”
When the students go on to high school – most of them attend Catholic high schools – Good Shepherd stays in contact with them and their parents to monitor their progress. Briggs said Good Shepherd’s benefactors pay for books and registration fees in high school, and the high schools absorb the tuition for the students.
“The program model across the country is to keep up with them,” Briggs said. “The longer they’re away from you, the more they fit in. Some still need that link, so we track them in high school. We make them sign a contract so we can see their grades.”
The post-graduation support program extends even to helping students enroll and pay for college. Benefactors are the key, Paul said. One man showed up on the doorstep of the school recently and said he felt compelled to donate $1,000.
“That just shows you the miracle of this place,” Paul said. “Many people knew ad loved Father Harry. They want to see his dream continue to be a reality.”
Kaitlin Glapion, who will be a sophomore at De La Salle High School, said her days at Good Shepherd prepared her well, especially in English, science and religion. She takes a streetcar twice a week to serve as a volunteer tutor at Good Shepherd.
“The school has huge place in my heart,” Glapion said. “I love the students here. I treat them like family. They are my second family.”
In fact, Glapion has a younger sister and brother and two cousins who attend Good Shepherd. The school has a current waiting list of about 30 students.
“We have to make sure when we send these children out into the world that they are ready to be critical thinkers and problem-solvers and servants,” Paul said. “When they enter our school, they enter to learn, and when they leave, they leave to serve. Education is the only way to do it. It’s the key to success in anything.”
Archbishop Gregory Aymond will celebrate the school’s 10th anniversary with a Mass Aug. 14 at 11 a.m. at Immaculate Conception Church. A blessing and reception will follow at noon at the school, 353 Baronne St.
Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.