Perhaps the most high profile student at Marist High School this year is the newly-appointed principal, Brother Donnell Neary, who said his first year here will partly be a matter of learning about the school, its operations, its people, and its successes.
Shortly after school opened this fall, Neary said although he started on July 1 – amid summer repainting and cleaning of the school – the real learning started a few days before school opened as faculty and students began to arrive.
He had previously come to the school prior to taking over to meet with the staff and the previous principal to get an idea of where the school had been and where it is going.
He also spent time reading manuals and other documents, including the Middle States report, which gives a specific outline about the school.
“Certainly academics are very important, but we aim to educate the whole person.” – Brother Donnell Neary
And he was impressed with the quality of staff right off, he said.
“We’re very blessed with this faculty because we have experience, we have youth, and about everything in-between,” he said. “We have the best of everything, and I think that is a major part of the success we’ve had with our students over the years.”
The Marist way
While every principal brings a certain amount of their own personality to the job, in Marist schools, the philosophy is pretty much determined from above.
“Marist is the name of the school, but it is also the name of our order and we’re worldwide. This school is part of a global community, and the Marist brothers for Christian education of youth, and also to educate for life,” he said. “Certainly, academics are very important, but we aim to educate the whole person so that they can take their place in society. And much has been given to them. They will come to a point in their lives in which they must give back.”
Although new to Bayonne, Neary has been around the block more than once, acquiring both educational and leadership experience from a number of Marist institutions, including his most recent assignment for the past seven years as assistant to the superior general of the Marist Brothers worldwide at their international headquarters in Rome, Italy.
Raised near Scranton, Pa., Neary earned a master’s degree in modern languages from the University of Scranton and a master’s of education degree in administration and supervision from Northeastern University.
An urban challenge
Marist is a challenging school in some ways because it is an urban school that meets the needs of several diverse student populations – those of a working class Bayonne and the more inner city Jersey City.
But this is not the first urban school Neary has been involved with. He has taught at Marist-owned schools in Illinois, Massachusetts, and New York. He was assistant principal at St. Agnes Boys High School in Manhattan and president of Our Lady of Lourdes High School in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. He served as vocation director for the Marist Brothers, and was elected Provincial of the Marist Brothers Poughkeepsie Province, serving in that role from 2000 to 2003.
He grew up right outside of Scranton, Pa., and went to high school in nearby Carbondale.
He still has family members in that area, and when he visits them, he said, it is like going home.
“I always felt drawn to teach,” he said, explaining his long road into the brotherhood. “I was considering involvement in the church. But I wanted to be a teacher and involved in education.”
Although he wasn’t drawn to the priesthood, he found out about teaching orders and thought he would “give it a shot.”
Over his career, he said he’s always worked with high school students.
“I taught foreign languages for awhile,” he said. “I did what we call campus ministry in some of our schools. Then I started getting involved in administration.”
At one point, he became a provincial or superior of a Roman Catholic religious order at one of the U.S. provinces.
“After that is when I got called to Rome to serve as secretary to our superior general,” he said.
“It was a great living experience, but it is where I learned so much more about Marist, watching the order from a global perspective, rather than a local perspective.”
And now, coming back into the trenches, he said, this experience affirms everything he had been taught and trained in from the Marist brothers.
“It gave me an appreciation for the beginnings of our order and for the work we have already done all these years,” he said.
With shortages in membership of the order, he came to appreciate the relationship the brothers had with their colleagues.
“I have two assistant principals here who are terrific,” he said.
He also was impressed by the parental involvement.
“I find parents of students are very supportive. Everything can’t be done in the school building. There is another part of education that has to be done in cooperation with the home. And I think that’s crucial.”
What surprised him?
“What surprised me how we were able over the years to take such a diverse student body. I don’t only mean ethnically or religiously, I mean even academically, and devise programs to meet their needs no matter where they are,” he said. “That’s what amazes me. In terms of schools, we’re a relatively small school, about 415 students. But we do have something for the gifted, but also for students who have talent but need just a little bit more steering. We have programs for students with learning disabilities.”
Neary said he will be in a learning curve during the first year, looking at how many of these programs work, and getting a sense of future needs.
Distance learning, the media center, some of the international studies, and cooperative programs with schools elsewhere in Bayonne and Jersey City will continue. It is part of those elements that give students access to more programs than the building can house within its walls.
No one can say what the future holds, but Neary said he intends to build on the successes of the school, and perhaps leave his mark the way those before him have.
Al Sullivan may be reached at email@example.com.