At Rutland's Mount St. Joseph Academy, school officials have been working hard to grow and diversify enrollment. And despite some bumps along the way, their efforts seem to be paying off.
The academy will hold commencement next week, and graduate 28 seniors. It's a far cry from the large classes that passed through the Catholic school in the 1960s, when enrollment swelled to an all-time high of more than 600 students.
Founded in 1882 as an all-girls school, MSJ became coed in the late 1920s. But like many schools in Vermont, it's seen its student numbers drop steadily in recent years. Three years ago, enrollment had plummeted to fewer than 70 students.
On a recent Thursday morning, the din between classes was quieter than in years past. But the kids stopping at lockers and chatting in the hallways looked more diverse, and several students were laughing and conversing in Chinese.
Paul Gallo is extremely proud of that accomplishment. He’s a member of the MSJ school board and chairs its diversity committee.
“If you look at our biracial or minority or international students, I think it represents about 25 percent of the students," he says.
Gallo says 83 students are enrolled at MSJ this year — a 30 percent jump from last year — and Gallo says the school expects another 15 to 18 percent increase in enrollment next year.
Principal Sarah Fortier, who graduated from MSJ herself, says that while the school has always had international students, the administration has made a concerted effort in recent years to welcome more.
“We have students from China, from South Korea, Honduras. But if you’re talking about diversity, we also have a lot of children of different faiths. We don’t just have Catholic students. We’ve had Jewish students, lots of Protestant students; right now we have a Muslim student and Buddhists.”
She says 13 students currently live with local host families, including 16-year-old Nicolas Moise, one of several students from Haiti.
Moise says his old school in Port au Prince was much larger and less personal. And he says the move to Vermont was easier than he expected.
“I fit in very quickly, honestly, and I feel like MSJ is like a family," he says. "It’s not just a group of students working and stuff, and I really like that.”
Moise lives with a host family in Chittenden, and says he hasn’t experienced any racism since moving to Vermont.
“No, not at all,” he says. “I feel like I’m part of Rutland.”
That’s very different from the experience of five black teens from the Bronx who attended MSJ in 2012 to play basketball. That team won MSJ its first state basketball title, but some parents felt the kids from New York City took playing time away from local kids, and social media sites were filled with racially tinged comments.
In the documentary Divided by Diversity, about MSJ's 2012 team and the racism they endured on and off the court, the players told local filmmaker Duane Carleton they’d experienced verbal and physical attacks.
Just this month, Mark Tashjian, headmaster of Burr and Burton Academy in Manchester, wrote a belated apology to MSJ that appeared in VTDigger. Tashjian explained that he recently saw Carleton’s documentary. The film showed students at Burr and Burton chanting “KFC” during a game against MSJ.
Sarah Fortier says there was a different principal at MSJ in 2012. Both she and Paul Gallo say the way the school brought in those students was not well thought out. Since then, they say the school has reassessed and restructured its admission program, and both are confident the atmosphere within the school has changed.
But Fortier admits some things outside their walls haven’t.
“I actually saw it a lot on a social media, because our basketball team was very good this year, and people were upset that our team beat theirs," she says. "We almost won the state title, and there were definitely people talking about how none of the kids on the team that were playing were local.”
That’s untrue, she says. Only one of the non-white players on their team was from outside Vermont.
“And the reason, in my personal opinion, that a lot of people were saying these kids aren’t local, is because they were students of color," Fortier says.
Sixteen-year-old Frank Toney was MSJ’s only black basketball player not from Vermont, having moved to Rutland from Long Island. He says he came to MSJ for better academics and to play basketball.
The sophomore says while it was hard to start over in a school so far from home, it didn’t take him long to make friends.
“My personality helps,” he says, grinning. “I’m funny and I like to smile a lot.”
“Since it’s a small school, you see the same people in the hallways,” Toney continues. “So you really get to connect with people in study hall and lunch and stuff like that, and we do a lot of out-of-school extra activities, and especially the basketball team really helped me make a lot of friends.”
Asked if he’s experienced any racist behavior in or out of school, Toney shakes his head no. “I play basketball with a lot of people from Rutland and, well, everyone’s been nice to me.”
Toney says he wants to stay at MSJ until he graduates. After that, he says, he wants to go to college to study physical therapy — and play more basketball.
Rutland resident Kelly Giancola says the youngest of her four children will start at MSJ next year. She considers the small size and growing diversity of the Catholic school a plus.
“I mean, we live in Rutland," she says. "Where else would my kids meet kids from China or Honduras?”
She says her daughter Gabby has already mentioned wanting to visit classmates in Haiti.
“You know, it’s a connection," says Giancola. "Seeing where their friends came from and really wanting to know about their home town, and getting an understanding of how different it was to come to Rutland.”
She says her son’s baseball team at MSJ is very diverse, and the kids carpool.
“It’s no big deal anymore, it's normal.” she says, laughing. “I guess that’s the idea.”