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Pursuing Excellence in a Pandemic

Kenna Arana on Wednesday, 27 January 2021.

Austin Preparatory School in Reading, MA

Veritas, unitas, and caritas – or truth, unity, and charity – are the three charisms of the Augustinian educational tradition. At Austin Preparatory School in Reading, Massachusetts, these words are more than a token that hearkens back to the school’s history. They describe and drive the spirit of the faculty, staff, and students in the midst of a pandemic

Michael McLaughlinMichael McLaughlin, the head of the middle school at Austin Prep, says that the past year has been a “mission moment” for all schools, but especially for Austin Prep. “As an Augustinian school, we were compelled to live out our charisms of veritas, unitas, and caritas,” said Michael, who was a member of the 13th cohort of ACE Teaching Fellows and the eighth cohort of the Mary Ann Remick Leadership Program. “That drove everything we did and everything we continue to do.”

From transitioning to virtual instruction to planning graduation ceremonies in the midst of school shutdowns, the faculty and staff at Austin Prep have lived out the values of truth, unity, and love each step of the way. As the head of middle school, Michael oversees grades six through eight and also runs special programs for the entire school. Back in March, his new special program became figuring out how to get the school to function remotely.

“I was presenting at a conference in Rhode Island on the topic of student travel and getting ready to take my whole eighth grade to Washington for their annual trip,” Michael recalled. “I came back only to then have to rethink how we'd deliver instruction.

“Over the course of a weekend, the dean of academic affairs, Michelle Connor, and I sat down and tested Zoom. We worked with a few student groups, navigated conversations with a couple members of the faculty, and then transformed previously planned professional development days into intense teacher training at the beginning of the week,” he said. “Then on Wednesday of that week, we launched Zoom school, so effectively students didn’t miss a single class.”

“I think we found that, yes, the students have to learn the Pythagorean theorem and when the War of 1812 was. But at the end of the day, they're going to remember how they felt when they were here."

Not only did the faculty and staff figure out how to adapt, they also thought of creative ways to offer students a sense of normalcy. In May, the governor of Massachusetts released restrictions that would have prevented the school community from being able to celebrate graduation. However, that did not stop the Austin Prep community from safely celebrating the class of 2020.

“Thanks to the fact that we are a Catholic school,” Michael said, “we were allowed to have a Mass. The bishop came and celebrated Mass on the football field, and we had pods set up for graduates and their families. After the celebration of the Eucharist, the bishop asked if there were any announcements and we said, ‘yes, we'd like to read 156 names.’

While Michael and the rest of the Austin Prep faculty and staff remain committed to delivering excellent instruction to their students, they have also made it a priority to attend to students’ social and emotional needs. They built advisory time into the class schedule so that students could process all of the changes they were experiencing in small groups. They also planned activities such as a trivia night and a photo and video contest.

“It’s all about relationships,” Michael said. “Students are trying to answer the questions ‘Who am I?’ and ‘How do I fit in?’ and you really need authentic interactions to answer those questions.

“I think we found that, yes, the students have to learn the Pythagorean theorem and when the War of 1812 was,” Michael said. “But at the end of the day, they're going to remember how they felt when they were here.

As an administrator, Michael credited the commitment, flexibility, and patience of the faculty and staff for offering students a sense of normalcy over the past year.

It’s the care and concern beyond the walls of the classroom that make the difference,” Michael said. “It's the advisor who reaches out. It's the teachers who are sending individualized emails. It's the counselor who is arranging afternoon meet-and-greets for small groups of students. And it's that the students are really not left to their own devices. It really is that sense of community and our Augustinian values that are driving us.”

Learn more about ACE Teaching Fellows and the Mary Ann Remick Leadership Program.

Learn more about Austin Preparatory School at austinprep.org

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