Ten years ago, Nora Cronin Presentation Academy opened its doors to young women in Newburgh, NY who are entering 5th grade. I attended a celebration at the school a couple of weeks ago to commemorate the founding Sisters who met the challenge of starting the school and to retell the founding story of the dream and the people who mobilized the resources and partners to make it happen. Students and alumni represented the school and community members read proclamations to honor the Sisters. Several students guided visitors on a tour of the school afterward and one student was asked what this celebration meant to her: “It is amazing to know that these women want the best for us.”
While the story of Nora Cronin Presentation Academy is ten years old, the tradition in which it is rooted dates back to the mid-1700s. Nano Nagle was the founder of the Presentation Sisters, and her story is foundational to the education and the school community:
Defying the Penal Laws [which denied Catholics the right to property, to education, to entry into the professions], Nano Nagle secretly set up a school in Cork, initially enrolling a class of thirty-five girls. From there the project grew. Soon she had schools in other parts of Cork city. She employed teachers at her own expense to teach basic literacy and life-skills, while she travelled each day on foot to teach the catechism and to prepare her pupils for the sacraments. At night she would visit the poor in their homes, travelling the unlit lanes and dangerous, unprotected quays, offering what help she could. Her biographer tells us that ‘there was not a garret in Cork that she did not know’. Nano became affectionately known in the city as ‘The Lady of the Lantern’. (From the website http://www.nanonagle.com)
There is an icon that is displayed in several places in the school – a poster in the meeting room, a large painting in the entry and a student-drawn banner on the third floor – that recalls this story, including one image of Nano Nagle carrying her lantern through the streets of Ireland. This year, the school will honor the first two recipients of the Lantern Awards. It is a powerful metaphor to counter the poverty of Newburgh: Let your light shine, and illuminate the way for your future and the community. Even the school building reflects this tradition. What was once a graffiti-ridden, decrepit house has been beautifully renovated as a bright space for learning.
Change and tradition are often seen as opposing forces; change threatens tradition and tradition blocks change. For NativityMiguel Schools, however, these two forces have a collaborative relationship. Tradition is the source of educational change that has impacted a generation of students and families in so many communities, and this change has only revived, strengthened, and animated the educational tradition of religious congregations and communities. Our schools are firmly rooted in the past yet always looking forward to the future.
Effective school leaders understand how to balance these two forces as a healthy synergy. We do need to create new ways of delivering instruction, new curriculum for 21st century skills, new formative assessments that identify strengths and areas of growth, and new technology tools that support all of these. Schools and school leaders, however, that are constantly introducing initiatives and rotating programs risk systems that are not aligned, confusion from faculty and staff and a fragmented educational vision overall. These risks are mitigated when we know and stay rooted in what has worked in the past, and effective school leaders pay careful attention to the evidence that supports how the school is achieving what it set out to achieve and how the schools needs to improve. In this environment, change is an opportunity to do more better without distracting from what we do well.
Like Nora Cronin Presentation Academy, our biggest breakthroughs, when we bring the brightest light, are anchored by tradition AND fueled by change.