In its 20th year, Pope Prep still building ‘city on a hill’

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Alumni of Pope John Paul II Preparatory School gather for a group photo at the school’s recent 20th Anniversary Celebration, held on Saturday, Sept. 18. This year is the school’s 20th. It opened in the fall of 2002 with about 245 sophomores and freshmen. The school’s founding headmaster, Hans Brokeman, welcomed the students on the first day of class for the new school by inviting them to help build a “city on a hill.” Photo courtesy of Pope John Paul II Preparatory School.

On Aug. 19, 2002, 245 sophomores and freshmen gathered in the auditorium of Pope John Paul II Preparatory School for its opening day.  

“You are the start of a living tradition,” Hans Broekman, the school’s founding principal, told the students who had come from 70 schools to launch a new high school. “You see, we, the faculty and you, each one of you, are going to build a city on this hill. It is a city called Pope John Paul II High School. … It will be a light that no one in this auditorium today will want to hide or will be able to hide. It will speak eloquently of your abilities and your perseverance and of God’s love and plan for each of us. Your school is our great work together.”  

In August of 2021, the school started its 20th year, and its light is still shining brightly. 

“The first days were very exciting,” said Karen Phillips, who served as the school’s first Dean of Studies and today is the Assistant Head of School for Institutional Advancement and a social studies teacher. “The first year was very exciting, all the way through the first graduating class. Each year there was something new, they were establishing new traditions.” 

“We were doing everything new,” recalled Faye Girten, the school’s first registrar whose son Jeff was in the first graduating class. “Everybody was trying to figure everything out.” 

Building the curriculum 

When the Diocese of Nashville launched the effort to build a new high school, Phillips was a well-regarded teacher and social studies department chair at Gallatin High School. The late Bishop David Choby, who was then Phillips’ pastor at St. John Vianney Church in Gallatin, asked her to help develop the curriculum for the new school. 

She started working on the curriculum with Carolyn Baker, who was also on the committee looking for the school’s first principal. 

“My background was social studies,” Phillips said. “I knew curriculum for social studies, but I was not familiar with other areas of academic curriculum. My approach was to contact my friends to get their input.” 

She reached out to her colleagues at Gallatin High: Richard Stephenson in English, Betty Mayberry in math, Jennifer Dye in science. Eventually, they all joined Phillips on the school’s first faculty as department chairs. 

“The curriculum was really fleshed out and developed by the people we hired to be department heads,” Phillips said. The department heads also included JJ Ebelhar as the fine arts department chair, Deacon Brian Edwards as the theology department chair, Ginger Farry as the foreign languages chair, and Julie Rollins as the athletic director.  

“It is unique to have the opportunity to start a school from scratch,” Phillips said. “It gave us an opportunity to implement what we thought the ideal progression of skills should be from grades nine through 12.” 

Academic rigor with a renaissance view and a broad view of requirements would be the school’s calling card from the very beginning. “That was the vision of Hans Broekman,” Phillips said.  His message to the department heads and faculty was to expect a lot of students and prepare them for college, Phillips said. 

“In developing the culture of the school, Mike McLaren was hugely influential,” Phillips said of Pope Prep’s former dean of students, who died last year. “Mike was schooled in England and Germany. He brought those ideas of English private schools with him,” such as the house system, which was new to the area then, and the expectations for student behavior and character development. 

“I would also credit our initial board of trust” with helping to create the school’s culture, Phillips said. “That group of people were so excited about the project of building a new Catholic high school in the diocese. Their support and carrying the message throughout the diocese and recruiting people to support the school financially and encouraging people to bring their students here was hugely important in getting this school off the ground.” 

‘The promise of things’ 

As much as the early days of the school, Phillips remembers the open houses held before construction of the school was complete. 

“When those parents came to our open houses, we would meet at the trailer and then tour them through the construction site,” Phillips said. “We were showing them the promise of things. I have to credit Hans Broekman for convincing people that this would be a wonderful school.” 

Girten was one of those parents. 

Her family had just moved to Hendersonville from Memphis, where she taught Spanish at Bishop Byrne High School, when the diocese started surveying people about their interest in a new Catholic high school on the north side of Nashville. 

She wrote a letter to diocesan officials saying, “Not only would I send my son there, I’m interested in employment.” 

Girten, her husband Ron, and son Jeff, all became heavily involved in the new school as volunteers, helping with the open houses, she said.  

After getting to know her, Broekman offered her a job as the school’s registrar, something she had never done before.  

The opening of the school was a learning experience not only for her but for everyone on the staff, Girten said. “Every new thing that we did was exciting,” she said. “It was really a team all together being involved, excited like pioneers, creating something and seeing the dream and the mission come to life.” 

‘All new together’ 

Brian Sneed, Pope Prep’s assistant athletic director and defensive coordinator for the football team, was a freshman sitting in the auditorium that first day. It wasn’t where he expected to be just a year earlier. 

“Both my parents went to (Father Ryan High School). Both my older sisters went to Ryan. Halfway through my eighth grade year I was going to Ryan,” Sneed said. Then his father, John, was hired as Pope Prep’s first boys basketball coach and softball coach. 

“I went to Christ the King (School). We had a class of like 30. I’m pretty sure 27 went to Ryan,” Sneed said. “It was like you were leaving your group behind.” 

But he and the other students who opened Pope Prep quickly bonded and many friendships formed across the two grades. “It didn’t feel like it was a ton of different groups,” Sneed said. “We were all new together.” 

The students recognized the academic rigor from the start, he said. “It was tough and challenging.” 

“You knew going into it the standard was set high,” Sneed added. “That’s the only way to push yourself.” 

“The people starting the school wanted to be on the cutting edge of academics and technology and wanted to make sure the students got the best of those things,” Sneed said.  

The school opened with smart boards in every classroom and a Palm Pilot for every student, he noted. That commitment remains. “Now we have the STEM program and one-to-one iPads for all of our students.” 

The school has always been willing to experiment, Phillips said. “Each year we’ve asked what are we missing, what needs need to be addressed,” she said. “It’s always with that wish to serve our students that any of our changes are developed.” 

One of those changes was the creation of the Hand In Hand Options program to serve students with intellectual and developmental delays. “This is a school for students of all abilities and aspirations,” Phillips said. 

The latest change has been the addition of grades six, seven and eight and the transition from a high school to a preparatory school.  

“No one really knew what to expect about how many kids would be interested” in the new middle school grades, Sneed said. “We added close to 200 students. It definitely feels like it’s on the upswing. It’s growing and it’s thriving. We’re not just adding new students, but new families to our community.” 

“I think we’ve had a pretty smooth transition from infancy into our adolescent years, which is where I think we are now,” Phillips said. “The character of the school has been honed and more firmly established.” 

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