By HEATHER WRIGHT — St. Jerome Institute (SJI), a new classical liberal arts high school, has kept its promise to be in or near Hyattsville. The school will open fall 2019 in D.C., at 1800 Perry Street NE, according to an emailed announcement from Headmaster Peter Crawford. The school will share space with the Perry Street Preparatory Public Charter School. SJI is an initiative of St. Jerome Academy (SJA) parents and is based on SJA’s education plan, although it is it is not officially affiliated with SJA or the St. Jerome parish.
Crawford said in an interview that he and the SJI board were looking for a site that fulfilled four main requirements. They wanted a location that 1) could serve Hyattsville-area families who would be attracted to SJI, 2) would be responsible and limited investment for a start-up high school, 3) could provide a functional space, conducive to student formation — a space with large rooms, natural light, outdoor green space and other amenities that would provide a good home for students, and 4) would support the school’s Christ-centered focus and allow students regular access to the sacraments, such as the Eucharist and confession.
Crawford described the Perry Street site as “a very exciting home for us because it fulfills a lot of the priorities we set for the [ideal] site.” First, the location is “excellent,” according to Crawford, and, although not in Hyattsville, is just an 8-minute drive away and is especially convenient for families traveling on Michigan Ave.
The facility is a good deal and a wise investment, said Crawford, and offers room to grow. SJI board member Daniel Gibbons and executive assistant, Emily Strab, agreed with Crawford’s assessment that the building has plenty of space to allow for increased enrollment.
The Perry Street building is designed for SJI’s use and has many amenities that families expect from any school. Gibbons described the site as a “well-maintained school building” that includes an auditorium, gymnasium, surrounding athletic fields and a basketball court. Strab noted that besides being an operational school free of zoning and licensing concerns, the brick building with palladian windows is beautiful. She said that with the fields, well-tended grounds and trees, “It’s just a very beautiful space.” The facility also has rooms that will support SJI’s seminar-based educational approach that relies on a class size of no more than 12 students.
Although the school is not on a church property, it is within walking distance of the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America, which SJI will use for weekly school masses, according to Crawford. It is also close to the Catholic University of America and the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.
When asked about drawbacks of the site, Crawford, Gibbons and Strab all said that some parents might object to sharing the building with another school. Strab explained that SJI has a separate entrance and reception area, though, which helps establish its identity. SJI also has its own floor with exclusive classrooms, Crawford said. Additionally, Gibbons said he expects that SJI will have a really good, collaborative partnership with Perry Street Prep: “They’ve been very reasonable and friendly and welcoming to us.”
Gibbons noted, too, that some parents wanted a facility that students from Hyattsville could walk to. “[The SJI board] was very much hoping to find a location within our community that would serve the community and allow the students to be engaged in community life in Hyattsville and service projects and in learning opportunities right here at home,” he said.
Hyattsville commercial and school buildings were too expensive for SJI, “a very small school starting out,” to afford, though, said Gibbons. “Part of the blessing of Hyattsville’s development boom is a curse for us,” he said, adding, “We really would have needed a very discounted rate, and none of the buildings we looked at, none of the owners were really willing to do that.”
Although Gibbons and Crawford agreed that a Hyattsville site would have been ideal, they both noted that the Perry Street location could offer other advantages. Crawford said that the site could make the school accessible for more families coming from the district and Montgomery County.
“The location is very good for most of our families, even if it’s not right next door,” said Gibbons, adding that the Brookland location may appeal to a broader range of families: “We can reach out a little bit further and build our community a little further.”
SJI’s location will also allow for easy access to the district’s cultural resources, encouraging students “to have a more engaging and concrete educational experience,” according to Gibbons. “I think our greatest challenge is going to be just organizing the life of the school in a way that … makes the most of the ridiculous amount of great stuff you can do in D.C.”
Overall, considering the location and the quality of the facilities, “I think parents are going to be really pleased with it and think it’s great,” said Gibbons.
Crawford said, “I’m just thrilled. … This site is a beautiful balance and harmony of the vision we had for a site. We’re blessed to have found it. I’m excited to welcome students into this space and form a home for them.”
According to Crawford, Gibbons and Strab the most important next step for SJI is recruiting and enrolling students. SJI started accepting applications for the 2019-2020 school year on Nov. 15. A day later, Strab said applications were rolling in from as far as Bowie and Olney and Alexandria, Va. Tuition for SJI’s opening school year is $12,800/year, and according to SJI’s website, financial aid is available
SJI is also hiring teachers, said Crawford, which he described as a “key moment in the formation of a school,” adding that “faculty culture is the most important way to influence students and student culture.”
“We are convinced that what we’re offering at this school is the very best education for any child,” said Gibbons, “It’s very different from the kind of education that students are going to receive in mainstream schools, but I think it’s what our children need now in this very difficult time in history.” Gibbons continued, “We’re trying to move education forward and find the very best ways of preparing young people to make the world a better place and to live well.”
To learn more about SJI and its classical liberal arts education, visit stjeromeinstitute.org/.