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Goals for Overbrook, St. Cecilia Academy look to deepen ‘Dominican Difference’

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St. Cecilia Academy students Teria Tibbs and Amelia Pyburn work on a robotics project. St. Cecilia Academy and Overbrook School on the Dominican Campus recently completed a year-long strategic growth planning process identifying goals in several areas for the next three to five years. Photo courtesy of St. Cecilia Academy

The Dominican Difference has been a key to the experience at Overbrook School and St. Cecilia Academy for students, teachers, administrators, and parents throughout their long histories.  

Articulating what the Dominican Difference is and how to use it to shape the schools’ growth in the future was among the key developments of the recent strategic planning process for Overbrook and St. Cecilia.

During the year-long planning process, parents, stakeholders, alumni, teachers and staff  “kept talking about the Dominican Difference,” St. Cecilia Principal Sister Anna Laura, O.P., said. “This phrase kept coming to the top. They wanted us to really articulate that more fully because that’s what they experienced here. Our executive committee realized that is what we need to be able to talk about and to capture.”

“We found that the Dominican spirituality and the Dominican tradition of education is so important to families, students and alumni,” said Elizabeth Carden Phillips, a graduate of both schools and a member of the strategic planning process’ executive committee. “It’s what makes the schools unique.” 

“I loved both schools growing up, and that’s why I wanted to send my children there,” said Phillips, who has two daughters attending schools on the Dominican campus: Flanigen, a junior at St. Cecilia, and Cecilia, an eighth grader at Overbrook. “They’ve both really flourished. There’s something about driving onto that campus. … I always feel a sense of peace. It’s such a special place.”

Sister Imelda, O.P., talks with Overbrook School student Nolan Blankush. The recently completed strategic growth planning process for Overbrook and its neighboring school on the Dominican Campus, St. Cecilia Academy identified a goal of deepening the Dominican Difference the permeates every aspect of the two schools. Photo courtesy of Overbrook School

“Our Dominican charism flows through the whole school, and it is something that is palpable,” said Sister Immaculata, O.P., interim principal of Overbrook School. “The opportunity to articulate that difference with greater clarity is a special opportunity for both schools.”  

The strategic growth plans for both schools define the Dominican Difference as “as expression of the charism of the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia,” whose congregation owns and operates both schools. They established St. Cecilia Academy in 1860 and Overbrook in 1936. 

The Dominican Difference includes:

  • An academically rigorous approach to educating students in truth and charity within a nurturing community marked by grace, friendship, freedom and confidence. This difference also seeks to elucidate the rich harmony of faith and reason, encouraging students to contemplate the simple splendor of reality through the pursuit of truth wherever it may be found.  
  • It emphasizes that true learning leads to wisdom and that a life of virtue grounded in friendship with Jesus Christ, who is Truth, leads to happiness, fulfillment and joy. Friendship with God in turn invites people into friendship and communion with their neighbor, inspiring them to communicate God’s goodness and love to the world, becoming more of one mind and heart in a journey toward heaven.

For the Dominican Sisters, the goal of learning and of study is not simply to get into high school or college or to land a job, but total formation of the human person – to be a good citizen of this world, certainly, but ultimately to be a citizen of heaven, the end for which each student is made. “We wanted to create a sense of community and collaboration between the two schools, and through the articulation of the Dominican Difference we can do that,” Sister Immaculata said.

The Dominican Difference is inspired by the example of St. Dominic, founder of the Dominican Order in 1216. “All his life St. Dominic was fired by a call to preach the truth of Jesus Christ.  He founded our Order for that purpose,” Sister Anna Laura said. “St. Dominic was given a particular gift by God of teaching others the truth so they can have the joy that God wants them to have.

“That informs everything we do here.  It is really the touchstone for our whole strategic plan,” Sister Anna Laura said. “Everything in the plan is aimed at renewing and deepening the Dominican Difference.”

A ‘beautiful’ process

Normally, the two schools update their strategic growth plans separately every five years. This time, the schools, which are located next to each other on the Dominican Campus in West Nashville, decided to do both plans under the same umbrella. 

The firm Institute for School and Parish Development helped shepherd both communities through the process and set up a structure that included an executive committee, a steering committee, and planning teams for each school that looked at specific areas, such as organizational structure, school collaboration, academic excellence, and faith, reason and virtue, advancement, facilities, and student life.

The executive committee included representatives from both schools. “It oversaw the whole strategic growth plan,” Sister Immaculata said. 

Each school had its own steering committee, she said, which oversaw the work of the individual planning teams. 

The process of developing goals for both schools began with the planning teams and worked their way through the structure, Sister Immaculata explained, with an additional step: a convocation that brought in a wider a circle of stakeholders, including alumni, faculty, parents of current students and parents of former students, to comment on the goals.

The convocation also included people from across the nation that the Dominican Sisters knew who were involved in the various areas addressed in the plan.

“The Sisters have been absolutely wonderful about being open to new ideas. We’ve tried to take in all of the suggestions and input to create a robust strategic plan for the future,” Phillips said. “We touched over 500 families or so throughout this process. It’s been wonderful to see the Sisters’ commitment to the campus as well as the commitment of parents, past parents and alums. It’s been a really beautiful experience.”

Assessing options for junior high

One of the goals included in the strategic growth plans for both schools is for Overbrook and St. Cecilia together to examine the seventh and eighth grades to see how to create a thriving junior high program on the Dominican Campus.

“We, unfortunately, lose some of our students just at the beginning of the junior high years,” Sister Immaculata said. “This has been a challenge that we wanted to address during our strategic planning process. A study is under way with the assistance of the firm Catholic School Management to collect and study quantitative and qualitative data, which will be ready later this year.”

Once a direction is set for the junior high program, the schools will develop plans to implement the vision, she added. “We’re trying not to limit ourselves and be very open to what the data has to say.”

The question for both schools, Sister Anna Laura said, is, “What is best for these young people and families? That’s what we want the junior high program to do.”

‘It’s real and it’s alive’

As for the rest of the goals outlined in the strategic growth plans, the schools will appoint implementation teams for each area to develop plans to fulfill the goals over the next three to five years. 

“In the late spring we’ll be inviting people to join implementation teams” so they will be ready to start implementing goals with the start of the new school year in August, Sister Anna Laura said. Some of the work with initiatives in student life and academic programs are already under way, Sister Anna Laura said. “The planning area committee discussions from last year have provided a lot of groundwork for the implementation teams. These plans are real and alive and I think they are going to be very effective in charting a vibrant future for Overbrook and St. Cecilia.”

To view the St. Cecilia Academy’s Strategic Growth Plan, visit www.stcecilia.edu/about/strategic-plan. To view the Overbrook School’s Strategic Growth Plan, visit www.overbrook.edu/about-us/strategic-growth-plan.  

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