Mount St. Mary looks to the future

Sister Deborah Troillet, RSM, and Denny Ferra in front of a statue of St. Catherine McAuley in a newly renovated section of Mount St. Mary Academy.
Sister Deborah Troillet, RSM, and Denny Ferra in front of a statue of St. Catherine McAuley in a newly renovated section of Mount St. Mary Academy.

Little Rock’s Mount St. Mary Academy may have just turned 160, but the all-girls high school clearly has its sights set on the future of education.
In an Arkansas Catholic exclusive interview, president Sister Deborah Troillett, RSM announced that the oldest Catholic school in the diocese has a new technology initiative — distributing laptops to every underclassman beginning in the fall.
“One of the Mercy values which guide us is the courage to innovate,” she said. “Sometimes, you have to step out and take a risk to learn something with the right to make a mistake. As an institution, we have to be willing to step out as well.”
The move follows more than 18 months of study as well as negotiations with computer manufacturer Dell, which will supply the machines. The school will carry the lease on the equipment, which the student will be allowed to keep upon graduating. Freshman and sophomores will receive laptops next fall, with each incoming freshman class receiving their computers thereafter.
“This represents a huge commitment on the part of the Mount,” said Denny Ferra, past member of the Mount St. Mary Foundation board of directors.
Ferra said issuing laptops to the student body is a direct benefit of the $7.2 million renovation completed in 2009. Prior to that project, the school’s 1950’s-era power and telecommunications infrastructure was grossly ill-equipped to handle the demands of the hard-wired and wireless systems.
Even with the improvements, next fall’s rollout will be something of an experiment, which is partially why the decision was made to initially issue the machines to only half of the school’s roughly 500 students.
“There was no way we would be able to take on everything,” Sister Deborah said, adding that as minor bugs are worked out of the system, the possibility exists for upperclassmen to be allowed to bring their own machines for use at school, at their option as early as the spring 2012 term.
One thing the move won’t do is replace textbooks. Publishing companies haven’t sat idly by while schools at the secondary and post secondary level have moved into the digital age. Sister Deborah said licensing fees for online versions of texts is on par with the cost of printed books.
Still, as a means for enhanced research, creative use of online media such as websites and blogs and to improve communication between students and their instructors, the introduction of laptops is an exciting move.
The tools may have changed, but the forward-thinking attitude that drove this initiative has been the school’s motivation since four Sisters of Mercy and five postulates stepped off a boat from Ireland and made their way to the wilds of Arkansas more than a century ago. They had been sent by the order’s founder, St. Catherine McAuley after a personal appeal from Arkansas’ first bishop, Andrew Byrne.
In an era when opportunities for women were severely limited, these women were educated well beyond their era’s norms. An advertisement in the Arkansas Whig newspaper soliciting students for its initial term in September 1851 detailed a “solid and extensive” curriculum, including courses in English, French and Italian, music, art and astronomy as well as the usual core curriculum, for the sum of $120 per year.
Other Mount advancements, each with its own requisite controversies through the years, have included teaching physics in the 1950s, elections and women in leadership in the 1960s and an IBM computer lab in the 1980s. In recent years, the school has also broken new ground both inside the classroom with block scheduling, service-based learning and International Baccalaureate curriculum, as well as outside of it, with the introduction of random drug testing of students.
“There has always been a constant effort to find a better fit for what we are all about,” Sister Deborah said. “As the vision for women in society keeps changing, we must keep up with it for our students to realize their true dignity and potential.”
School leaders’ vision for the next 160 years can best be described as kaleidoscopic. Though perceptions persist of the school’s student body being exclusive, white and affluent, the fact is the Mount has long been the benefactor for students from a wide range of financial backgrounds. Tuition is discounted for all students and additional scholarships are awarded to a third of the students based on merit, need or both.
Reaching into other pools of students has proven a more complicated issue than just addressing finances. Ferra said while creating wider student diversity is a constant priority, particularly with the growth in the state’s Hispanic population, attracting and retaining multicultural students presents unique challenges such as distance. Mount St. Mary is not currently a residential campus and converting it to such would mean large-scale construction.
“Is there a possibility that we build additional buildings in the future? Perhaps,” he said. “But at some point you have to face the fact that you only have so much space to work with as well.”
Another consideration is the level of curriculum offered by many junior high schools in Arkansas does not adequately prepare students for the rigors of Mount St. Mary coursework. Sister Deborah said without the proper educational foundation all other considerations are moot issues.
“Mount St. Mary must be diverse and it must be inclusive, but it also must deliver a high-quality education,” she said. “Without the proper academic background, a student is literally set up to fail. It’s a serious issue in many school districts.”
Despite these challenges, school leaders are not deterred in their zeal to develop the school from within to bring students to their full individual potential. The desire to advance and look forward outweighs any nostalgia for the school’s past or adherence to the easier status quo. As Sister Deborah said, quoting Bishop Andrew J. McDonald, “You know, when you look around, Mount St. Mary is a school. It’s not a museum.”

Click here to return to the Catholic Schools Week index.

Dwain Hebda

You can see Dwain Hebda’s byline in Arkansas Catholic and dozens of other online and print publications. He attends Our Lady of the Holy Souls Church in Little Rock.

Latest from News