Founding StoryAugust 11, 2023 2023-12-29 23:18
How Divine Mercy Academy Began:
A Letter from Founder, Ali H. Ghaffari
The story of Divine Mercy Academy began on October 13th, 2017. I’ll never forget that day. We were driving down the highway in our minivan packed with screaming kids on a road trip to Ohio, listening to an audio book entitled “The Benedict Option”. I had heard good things about the book, but didn’t know really know what to expect. But in the book, Rod Dreher, the author, tells the story of a school called St. Jerome’s Academy in Hyattsville, MD. Back in 2001, St. Jerome’s was a bustling Diocesan Catholic School with 530 students. In 2009, however, the student population had dropped to 297 and the school was nearly $118,000 in debt. Parents had been pulling their children out of the school because it seemed little different than a public school with an overlay of religious instruction. The Archdiocese of Washington told the school administrators that the school would need to be closed at the end of the year if something dramatic didn’t happen.
One night that winter, they gathered the parents and teachers in their school lunch room to hear the bad news. That’s when Chris, a father of a middle-schooler, came up with an idea. He began to socialize with other parents and parishioners, who reacted positively. Together, they brought the idea of returning to a Classical Liberal Arts Curriculum to their parish priest, Father James Stack, and the Assistant Principal, Mary Pat Donohue. Father Stack and Mary Pat embraced the idea, and with little to lose, the team began planning the new curriculum. The questions they asked when they developed the now famous St. Jerome Curriculum included, “Is it True? Is it Good? and Is it Beautiful?” If it wasn’t, then it didn’t make it into curriculum. They unfurled the new curriculum in the Fall of 2010 and within 5 years, St. Jerome Academy was full again and had waiting lists to boot!
Hearing this story triggered in me a desire for the same kind of education for my own children. A flood of frustration welled up in me over our kids’ education and over my own. Where was this classical education when I was growing up? Where was this education now, when my wife and I were battling it out every night over Common Core math and a child who thought she was stupid because she didn’t understand? Why was I paying so much for a Catholic School when my kids could get virtually the same education at a public school?
I wanted my children to recognize Truth, Beauty, and Goodness – to see God clearly – and to love school. I wanted them to be taught by Teachers who aspired to be saints and surrounded by families who took their faith seriously. I wanted the best for my daughters - to become both Saints and scholars, but Saints first. I wanted a Classical Liberal Education for them. I immediately began a short and excited search to see how far Hyattsville was from Annapolis. Unfortunately, it was too far. I looked around to see if there were any other Catholic schools offering a Classical Liberal Education. I found St. Thomas Aquinas Tutorial, a two-day a week school whose founders were also inspired by St. Jerome Academy. We went to check it out. I was blown away by what I saw. Classroom discussions were centered on the question, “Why?”. But not just one “Why?” The teacher asked, “Why?” with all the persistence of a three-year-old! To my amazement, I saw kids drawing deep connections and coming up with novel insights. I fell in love with the Classical method and curriculum. Unfortunately, they had a waitlist and it was unlikely that our kids would get in for the next school year. Moreover, the two-day a week model would have been hard for us to do given my wife and I both work full time. Incredibly impressed by the curriculum but increasingly frustrated that it wouldn’t work for us, I spoke with Ruth, the head of the school, at the end of the visit. I asked Ruth about the chances STAT would become a full-time school. Unlikely, she said. But then Ruth looked me straight in the eye and said, “The time is right for a full-time classical school in the area and that all that is needed is the right person to start it”. That was the first time it became clear to me that I may need to start a school.
In the meantime, I heard of another effort starting up, Chesterton Academy of Annapolis. We attended their introductory meetings hopeful that they would cover elementary and middle school. I was particularly impressed with their curriculum. I wanted to go to Chesteron! The problem again was that this would be a high school and our daughters were a long way away from being able to attend. After discerning for several more months, I decided to attend the annual conference of the Institute of Classical Liberal Education, or ICLE. There, I decided, I’d make my final decision. After being inspired by a number of talks, I sat down for lunch by myself when Amy, a military mom of one of the tutors at STAT, sat down next to me. She had heard that I was thinking about starting up a school and said, “I’d be willing to help you.” That was all the push I needed. Amy and I organized a meeting for August of 2018 and we recruited our first group of volunteers.
At first it was fun and easy – dreaming about what the school could be, coming up with surveys, and speaking theoretically. But then it came down to the real work of starting a school. I went to meet with the founders and board members of Chelsea Academy, a Classical School in Front Royal. Their message to me: Don’t do it – it’s too much work. They told me it would be easier to drive my kids back and forth to Hyattsville than it would be to start a school. It turns out they were right, but we persisted anyway - and we are so glad we did! Our first bit of business was to find a location. After briefly looking at commercial space and determining it was way too expensive, We pulled together a list of 35 churches which may have additional space we could use. 34 told us no. One said yes, and the space and price were perfect for us. We took it as a minor miracle from God.
Our founding board continued to meet regularly and we pulled together the legal framework fairly quickly. But when it came to fleshing out teachers and a student body – that’s when things got tough. Fast forward to April of 2019 - we had one teacher and eleven students. We offered the Headmaster position to three different people, all of whom, after initial enthusiasm, turned us down due to the amount of work involved. That’s when I got a phone call from one of our core families who, concerned about the low enrollment, wanted to pull out. Already stinging from the Headmaster failures, this may have condemned the school to an early death. I literally begged the family to stay with us and leave at least one child in. They reluctantly agreed. Shaken but seeing still a small sign of hope, I gave it over to God.
“God,” I said, pointing at the heavens, “This is your school – I’m doing everything I can for it to succeed, so if it fails, it’s on You!” “Jesus, I trust in you, but I need 20 kids to make this happen.”
No kidding, the very next day I got a call from Mary Etta, who was a classical artist, had an administrative background, and three children. Most importantly, she wanted to be heavily involved in the school. I looked up to Heaven and shook my head, “God, you really have a sense of humor.” Grateful, we pressed forward. In May, we had a meeting. Enrollment was picking up and we had a couple more teachers at this point – but the financial numbers just weren’t working out. There was a growing voice among board members to slide the opening a year to give more time to recruit and raise money. I knew that sliding a year risked losing momentum – we were at an impasse. That’s when Monica, one of our Board Members and a teacher spoke up. “I’ll teach for free until you have money to pay me” she offered. It was the thing we needed to guarantee we could get started. In August, our enrollment was up to 19 and on the final day before school began a potential 20th child was considering joining. God had fulfilled his promise.
As I look around now with great love and pride at a family of amazing and dedicated teachers, parents, and kids; when my children come home reciting poetry, singing beautiful songs in Latin, and crushing math, I know that all of this was completely worth it.
Yours In Christ,
Founder Divine Mercy Academy