Elisabeth Sullivan, ICLE Assistant Director

The first thing one notices about St. Thomas More Academy is the joyful atmosphere. This is not an institution, but a community. From the fire pit, to the chicken coop and organic garden, and especially to the beautiful chapel now under renovation, there is a sense of freedom and engagement here that seems to visibly uplift the students – and the faculty.

Founded as an independent high school with the blessing of the local bishop in 2002, St. Thomas More Academy defines itself by the “Three C’s: Catholic, Classical, and College Preparatory.” Those elements are palpable in the daily life of the school. From the rhythms of prayer, Holy Mass, and Eucharistic Adoration, to the profound discussions and rigorous material in the classrooms, STMA is an oasis of faith and reason nestled inconspicuously among the office parks of North Raleigh.

Dr. Jake Noland’s spontaneous opening prayer to a recent Philosophy class of juniors captures the ethos of the place: “Lord, we ask for help in discerning how what we learn reflects your truth and your glory, and how to apply it to our lives.”

What these students learn is deep and thought-provoking. “It’s really about quality over quantity,” said junior Kateri Manville, in the hallway between classes. “It is such a special place. STMA is more rigorous than most schools, especially the logic and philosophy classes, but it is all very relevant.” Her friend, Mary Margaret Love, adds, “… and exciting!” Another junior, Megan Senecal, joined in: “While the material is very challenging, our teachers are always there to help us understand. They are not just teachers, they are almost like friends.” While Senecal enjoys the academics, she said her favorite part of the month is First Friday Eucharistic Adoration, which brings everything else into focus.

STMA has grown to an enrollment of 178 students in grades 9-12, with a dozen full-time faculty, including Headmaster Deacon Brad Watkins and Dean of Studies Dr. Wesley Kirkpatrick, plus four part-time faculty and one staff member. The teachers are passionate about what is happening in this community.

Charles McCants, who teaches Latin as well as Roman and Medieval History, said he and his previous colleagues at a local charter school often dreamed of designing the perfect school. “When I got here, I found that someone had already done it,” he said. “Dr. K[irkpatrick]’s intellectual vision… and Deacon’s moral vision – where the body fuels the mind and the mind fuels the soul — this makes all the sense in the world.”

By any metric, STMA has soared in its 13-year history: The school boasts a 100% placement rate in four-year colleges and universities. The 49 graduates of the Class of 2015 collectively netted more than $8.1 million in academic scholarship offers. Classes enter STMA at about the 46-49 percentile nationally on the PSAT as 9th graders (average with 100% testing) and leave the school in the 80-85 percentile on the SAT (class average with 100% testing). Alumni report back that they were very well prepared for college and find themselves succeeding quickly in the classroom and beyond. STMA grads in very large numbers stay engaged in their faith, are involved in campus ministry, and often become leaders, according to administrators. Four alumni are seminarians for the Diocese of Raleigh, with two preparing to be ordained priests in June. Many more students are openly discerning the call to the priesthood and religious life. STMA has had a number of non-Catholic students enter the Church, and this Easter, a Chinese student, a senior, will be baptized. On the school’s most recent year-end survey of students, the most frequently suggested improvement was more time for Adoration of the Most Blessed Sacrament.

Parents appreciate the school’s striking uniqueness. Kevin Holowicki, whose two sons are now a freshman and a senior, said, “We love St. Thomas More Academy for so many reasons. It has provided our children with strong spiritual formation, an outstanding classical curriculum, and gifted teachers who are role models who live out the faith, all in a concentrated setting that has allowed them to thrive.”

STMA features some quirky — and popular — extras. It is the only Catholic school in the country with a Future Farmers of America chapter. More than one-third of the students are members, caring for a small flock of laying hens, and a garden area that produces hundreds of pounds of organic produce that is donated to Catholic Parish Outreach and Interfaith Food Shuttle every year. About half the school meets regularly at lunch for a swing dance club. Other activities include a weightlifting club, Science Olympiad, women’s self-defense classes, life skills classes, and occasionally hunter safety classes. STMA has just added a state-of-the-art teaching kitchen for a farm-to-table cooking class. Students are free to build fires and roast marshmallows at the fire pit in a courtyard near the statue of the Madonna and Child. Class trips have included expeditions to the U.S. National Whitewater Center, the Biltmore Estate, and Grandfather Mountain State Park. The entire school also travels to Washington, DC, every year for the National March for Life.

Electives vary widely from semester to semester, but a student could take an additional six semesters of math or science if they so choose. Despite the rigor of the courses, STMA strives for a low homework model.

Elisabeth Sullivan, ICLE Assistant Director and Board Member, asked Headmaster Deacon Brad Watkins to share his insights about St. Thomas More Academy’s richly successful culture.

Q. What makes STMA so distinctive?
A. Great question.  My first response is that it is a truly relational Catholic community.  Ours is a relational faith.  Love of God and love of neighbor.  This should drive all that we do as a school and permeate every facet our existence.  Also, our relatively small size (although we are larger than 70% of private high schools in the U.S.) is key to a personal and very human formation.  In a contemporary society, where the new normative model is building larger schools, students seem to be almost dehumanized.  They are moved through an industrial formation much like livestock are processed through giant concentrated feedlots.  For most of America’s youth, they have become nameless faces in enormous systems of education.  Never in human history have we tried to form young people in such large numbers, and I would argue, with such negative effects.  By contrast, for most of human history children were formed by their parents and a small group of adults.  To the extent possible, we try to model our formation (incorporating the Salesian model developed by St. John Bosco) on the family.  This allows us to notice and address things, subtle things in human, spiritual, intellectual, and leadership formation that might very well go missed in a larger school.

Q. St. Thomas More Academy is unusual in that it has developed quietly and independently, and is now a true model for a growing national movement in the resurgence of Catholic classical education.  How did this happen?
A. Fifteen years ago a proactive group of parents and academics began conversations about starting another Catholic high school in Raleigh that was based on a classical curriculum.  They approached Mr. Robert Luddy (a local Catholic business leader) who became the chairman of the board of directors and has been the principal benefactor for STMA.  Without his tremendous generosity and vision, STMA would not exist in the way that it currently does.  We sometimes talk about the patrons of great Catholic art from centuries past and lament that they no longer seem to exist.  This is a case where I would argue it does, only in this case the masterpieces are the students we have the privilege of forming each day.  As to how it happened, with specific regard to the curriculum, credit must be given to Dr. Wesley Kirkpatrick, our Dean of Studies.  He has guided the academics at STMA for over a decade, but it’s really in the last five years that he has brought STMA into its own.  It is important to note that we are a decidedly college preparatory school.  If the goal is taking ninth graders and putting them on a path to their college graduation, then college academics (especially great books programs) become the thing we spend more time focusing on than other high schools.

Q. How do you keep Our Lord at the heart of the school?
A. Aside from physically having Our Lord in the center of the school present in the Most Blessed Sacrament, it is key that Our Lord is at the heart of all the faculty.  It is my firm belief that faculty should be believers, true disciples of Jesus Christ.  If He is not at the heart of the adults in the school in a real way, students will pick up on it very quickly.  I also encourage our faculty frequently to share the joys and struggles of their faith journey with students.  I press them to engage conversations about faith when opportunities present.  Toward this end, we now have households as a part of our formation program – small discipleship groups (12-14 students from 9th to 12th grade) assigned to each faculty member that allow for more intentional and intimate conversations about faith and life. We also spend no small amount of time discussing discernment, discerning the person God calls (created) you to be, the vocation in which you will be your truest and happiest self, as opposed to what He calls you to do.

Q. What do you see as your major successes?  Major challenges?
A. Major successes are every child that graduates our school – for countless different reasons.  Beyond that, it would be the true conversions of heart that have happened over the years – students that have drawn closer to Jesus Christ in very real ways.  Challenges?  As with any Christian apostolate there will always be challenges.  No question that the enemy wants to frustrate what we are about, especially if it is leading souls to Christ and the Kingdom of Heaven.  This is nothing new and we’re not special in this, but day in and day out we really have very few real or major challenges.  The Holy Spirit is very much at work in this place and our Blessed Mother is constantly watching over us.