HARD AT WORK. A typical Mount Royal Academy classroom. Courtesy of Mount Royal Academy
Parents living in rural New Hampshire assumed a daunting task back in 1994. With no parochial schools nearby, they resolved to give their children a Catholic education nonetheless. They banded together to open Mount Royal Academy (MRA), in Sunapee, N.H., the first lay-founded and operated school to be recognized by the Diocese of Manchester.
Susan Bocko, one of the founders, said all of the first families were consecrated to the Blessed Mother, whom Bocko believes responded to their concern for their children.
“Our perseverance was truly a gift from God,” Bocko said.
“None of us had any great talents. Our Lady used us as we were, with our little gifts, our weaknesses and our sinfulness.”
More than 20 years later, Mount Royal Academy thrives. A member of the National Association of Private Catholic and Independent Schools, it currently educates 211 students in kindergarten through grade 12. The school falls under the ecclesiastical authority of the bishop of Manchester, but the diocese neither oversees it nor funds it.
Alternative to Public School
Bocko still has two children at MRA; seven others already graduated. They illustrate the school’s success.
“Our children transitioned extremely well from Mount Royal Academy to colleges, seminary and the workforce,” Bocko said. “MRA’s high standards of academics awarded them many opportunities and choices of scholarships and colleges.”
Headmaster Derek Tremblay said parents choose MRA for a variety of reasons. Families from Virginia, Connecticut, Maryland, New York and New Jersey discovered it — and relocated — after searching for “authentic Catholic schools” on the Internet. He said other families value MRA’s “warm, embracing environment that is free of distractions.”
Senior Anna Dahlberg transferred to MRA last year.
“My parents and I wanted a school that had a truly charitable Christian spirit,” Dahlberg said. In addition, MRA offered a setting that was strong in both faith and academics.
Some families choose MRA because it focuses on classical education and rejects the Common Core movement to standardize content taught in schools. Mount Royal Academy insists students acquire a solid foundation in each subject. For younger students, that includes arithmetic, phonics and penmanship. While MRA provides a computer lab, it discourages dependence on technology.
“We like to use the Socratic dialogue whenever possible, to get the students to make their own logical links through questioning, problem solving and identifying concepts,” said Matt McMenaman, MRA’s admissions director.
Mount Royal Academy’s grade-school pupils routinely score significantly higher than the national average on IOWA tests measuring academic achievement, as do its high schoolers who take the SAT to assess college preparedness.
Faith and Service
MRA students begin their day with theology class, and they daily pray the Morning Offering, Angelus and Prayer to St. Michael. With the bishop’s permission, the Blessed Sacrament is present in the school chapel. On Monday mornings, the student body and staff attend Mass celebrated by a priest from one of three local parishes. On Fridays, the school community recites the Rosary. On First Fridays, students volunteer for perpetual Eucharistic adoration time slots in the chapel. In addition, some parents meet once a week to pray for each MRA student by name.
Like other Catholic schools, Mount Royal Academy requires students in the upper grades to volunteer their labor at a food pantry, a crisis-pregnancy center or other charitable organization. Grade-school students help with projects that benefit the school.
Despite MRA’s strong Catholic identity, more than 40% of its students are not Catholic. Non-Catholics must honor the service commitment and attend theology classes, school Masses and the Rosary.
“We obviously don’t force any type of belief on them,” McMenaman said. “But we are Catholic, and we will teach our faith. They have to learn the content, understand it and be able to explain it.”
Throughout the years, students from China and Latin America participated in Mount Royal Academy’s “home stay” program. The headmaster noted that Chinese students rarely have a concept of God. When he arrived in New Hampshire, one young man adamantly denied that God exists. At his graduation, however, he delivered a speech that concluded with, “God bless you all!”
Tremblay said the school “plants seeds” in its Chinese students and averages one conversion per year among the Americans.
“We’ve had several teenagers do either RCIC (Rite of Christian Initiation for Children) or RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults), if they are 17,” Tremblay said.
Last year, a student asked Tremblay, who also teaches theology, to be her RCIA sponsor.
“She would go to school, receive religion instruction from me, and then once a week go to RCIA and receive more instruction,” Tremblay said. “And then she came into the faith last Easter.” All of the teen’s classmates witnessed the ceremony.
Like the young convert, MRA students attend daily religion class, but they prepare to receive first Communion and confirmation in their individual parishes.
“The parish is the source of the sacraments, not the school,” Tremblay said.
Future of Catholic Education
Ronald Fussell Jr., associate superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Manchester, said Mount Royal Academy’s Catholic identity is apparent in its physical environment, its curriculum and in the relationships between members of the school community.
“Catholic schools face a great crisis, in that the presence of religious orders in schools has sharply declined,” Fussell said. “It is refreshing to see a school like MRA, which is run entirely by lay educators and leaders, embrace its Catholic identity.”
Fussell said that Catholic schools occupy an essential place in the educational landscape.
“Teachers in Catholic schools have the freedom — and expectation — to illumine knowledge with the light of faith,” Fussell said.
Headmaster Tremblay acknowledged the challenges facing Catholic schools today. For Catholic education to revitalize, he said schools must be attractive, innovative and faithful to the magisterium: “It’s still possible to provide an affordable Catholic education with a lay staff, if we keep first things first.”
Jerri Donohue writes from Brecksville, Ohio.
Mount Royal Academy
The school takes its name from the hill on which St. André Bessette built an oratory in honor of St. Joseph. Founding families made a pilgrimage to the site, now a basilica, in Montreal.
Except for All Saints’ Day, Mount Royal Academy is closed on holy days of obligation. Because St. Joseph is the school’s patron, the school observes his feast day with Mass, a celebration and petitions in a basket by his statue.
Average classroom size is 15 students for elementary and junior high and 11 for high school. Including part-time faculty, the student-teacher ratio is 9:1.
The school offers six sports teams for elementary students and 11 for junior high and high school students.
MRA tuition is $6,500 per year for grade-school students and $8,000 for high-school students, with reductions for each additional child per family.
To keep tuition affordable, families participate in mandatory fundraising projects, selecting from a range of options.