Saint Margaret's Catholic School will be 150 years old next year. Founded during the last year of the Civil War, it is one of the oldest Catholic schools in the diocese. This venerable Middle Village institution has provided generation after generation of students with a valuable education rooted in Gospel values and Catholic teaching.
Saint Margaret's has recently seen resurgence in enrollment at the school, much to the satisfaction and delight of its 38 year-old Principal, Dr. Philip Franco, whose innovative leadership, foresight, and hard work enabled it all to happen. In the past three years as Principal, he has made great strides earning the respect and admiration of the faculty, students, and parents.
Dr. Franco is without a doubt a nice guy, a gregarious individual with an infectious laugh and a good sense of humor. But he is also a dedicated professional who is on a mission to provide his students with the best possible education and I believe with his determination, temerity, and discipline he will succeed.
Dr. Franco was born and raised in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where he attended Our Lady of Mount Carmel. He later attended Cathedral Preparatory, where he flirted with the idea of becoming a priest, and then graduated from Saint John's University. He received his Masters at Saint Joseph's Seminary and a Doctorate from Fordham University. He is currently going to school at night for his Masters in Administration and is studying to become a deacon. He is married with three sons and lives in Middle Village.
This interview took place in Dr. Franco's office at Saint Margaret's.
Q: When did you become Principal?
A: This is my third year. I started in the summer of 2011.
Q: What did you do before you became Principal?
A: I was a teacher, then assistant principal for seven years at my own grammar school, Mount Carmel in Brooklyn. After that I was the director of the religious education programs for the entire Diocese of Brooklyn and Queens for five years.
Q:Why did you decide to become a teacher?
A: Growing up I was pretty serious about becoming a priest, but eventually became interested in pursuing a career in education, and after I met my wife who wanted to be a teacher, and who also enjoyed subbing, that's when I knew what I wanted to do with my life. After I left for administrative work, I really missed the school setting. Although working in the administrative offices was nice, I felt like I had more of an impact on the students' lives and their day-to-day activities being in a school. So when the position for principal opened up and the Monsignor asked me if I would consider applying, I did so immediately.
Q: What are your goals at St. Margaret's?
A: My primary goal is to update the technology and educational practices at the school without altering the Catholic philosophy of education, which is sometimes not easy to do because some people feel that you have to do it either one way or the other. I believe you can update everything and at the same time maintain a Catholic environment in a Catholic school without affecting it.
Q: What would you say your overall philosophy is as Principal?
A: My philosophy is a very traditional Catholic philosophy of education, which is teaching the person and not focusing on tests. We don't put a big emphasis on state test scores or city test scores. Our emphasis is on the person and unlocking their potential. Every child has some kind of potential, whether it is to maybe become a mathematician or an athlete or something else. Since I became Principal, I have really tried to start a lot of programs that focus on the potential of the student, like creating language programs, or an art club, or science club, even karate. Everyone has potential it just differs from student to student. We try to pin down the interest of the individual student and then see where they can flourish.
Q: What accomplishment as Principal are you the proudest of?
A: The fact that enrollment has gone from 265 students to 371 students. That is a tremendous increase in enrollment and I am very proud of that. I'd love to hit 400 by next year. In fact, I promised the kids we would have a school party if it happens.
Q: Have you implemented any changes since becoming Principal?
A: Yes, we started a Nursery Program for 3 year-olds, which has been very successful and now has a waiting list. Also we have tried to implement different types of technology in the classroom. Every class should have some level of technology in it like Internet and computers, because that's what kids know. It's part of their lives now, and as they enter the work force in the future it is essential that they have some knowledge of the Internet and computers in order to be successful in this world.
Q: Is there anything you would like to see changed at St. Margaret's?
A: There is always room for improvement. I would love to see the enrollment continue to increase. I would also like to offer more languages to study. This is something children will really need in a world that has become smaller. They are really going to need to know other languages besides English to succeed. Other schools are now offering Mandarin, Japanese and other languages at an early age because studies show that the earlier you study a language the better, so I'd love to increase the language program at Saint Margaret's. I'd also love to have more advanced placement classes for high school. But those things will come in time.
I also would like seeing more done to improve traffic safety outside the school. Sooner or later a kid will get hurt or possibly become a fatality if nothing is done. I would love to see either a stop light on 79th Place or a second crossing guard or something to assure the safety of the children. I spoke to Councilwoman Crowley about this several times and she has done absolutely nothing. I was hoping that when she saw the letter I wrote in the Juniper Berry, she would react to it, but she hasn't. I even had parents write letters to her and she still didn't respond. You should see the traffic situation at dismissal time. It gets really bad.
Q: What is in the future for Catholic Schools? What do you foresee?
A: I think the future is very good, but the idea of having one parish with one Catholic school is becoming passe. As time goes by more and more schools are becoming regional, and I think they'll survive and thrive, but there will just be less schools. Thankfully the schools around here are doing very well, but as you see in other parts of the Diocese the schools that are thriving have to keep up with the technology, the common core, etc.
Q: Where will the future changes in education be overall?
A: Educating will be done more and more online. Technology is drastically changing the nature of education. Just to give you one example, in the future, snow days will probably become a thing of the past, because on a day where we have to close schools because of snow, students may be expected to sign in online and have classes online wherever they happen to be. We are really lucky here; we just received a grant from a St. Margaret's graduate to revamp all the technology in the school. He's giving us a lot of money under the condition he remain anonymous. He's a very wealthy man, a billionaire, in fact. He said Saint Margaret's changed his life thirty years ago and he wanted to give back and have St. Margaret's be the most technologically advanced grammar school.
Q: Why pay money to attend St. Margaret's or any Catholic School when you can enroll a student in a Public School for free?
A: Every school is different, but I think the reason people pay money is because Catholic School classes are smaller with more personal attention to students and with a much broader curriculum. My wife teaches in public school where the emphasis is on math and science and taking the tests, whereas in a Catholic School you have an opportunity to get more personal attention and a broader experience. And of course for people of the faith, you are getting the religious aspect of it, and it's not just a subject. They are getting an understanding of the faith and hopefully an outlook on life that is different than what you would get in a secular school, and a valuable overall education that stays with them as well.
Q: What were the results of the statewide standardized tests given last year? How did your students perform?
A: We did well, especially in English Language Arts. We beat the city average and the diocesan average. And we did slightly better than average in Math. So, we're proud of the test scores.
Q: What is the Renzulli Learning program and why did you invest in it?
A: Renzulli is a way to differentiate education. As I mentioned before, every student has different interests and abilities. Renzulli makes a profile of the student, then tries to see what their learning style is and what their interests are, after which a teacher inputs this information about the student. It then generates work, or a report or project that the particular student might be interested in. So, you're going to get everybody to the same level of knowledge, but based on their interests. For example, those students who like to write will be given a writing project. Renzulli tries to help students develop their strengths in order to better their education. It has become a really good tool. It's not one size fits all. It addresses the student's strengths and interests and how you can utilize that to better their education.
Q: What three adjectives best describe you?
A: Um... short. (laughs). Just kidding. That's a tough one, but I'd say dedicated, laid-back, and humorous
Q: What do expect from your teaching staff? Define a good teacher.
A: A good teacher is one who sincerely cares about the student. Notice I didn't say sincerely cares about the grades or job, but he or she sincerely cares about the student. One that is not at Saint Margaret's just for the job, or a paycheck, or their own advancement but rather to see a student do well. A good teacher is sincerely interested in the student.
Q: Do you have teacher evaluations?
A: Yes. It's similar to the public school system, but there is one major difference and that is we never tie student performance to it. A teacher is never evaluated based on the students' test scores. I personally evaluate them by observation. I observe them several times a year both formally and informally, when I go to their classrooms almost every day to observe them.
Q: What do you enjoy doing when you're not working?
A: I love reading and watching movies.
Q: Speaking of reading, what book or books would you want with you if you were on a deserted island?
A: The Bible and the works of Saint Thomas Aquinas, who is my favorite thinker and educator.
Q: Any line of Thomas Aquinas that comes to mind?
A: Christianity has taught us that love is more important than knowledge. I try to instill this thought in all my students.
Q: Have you seen any good movies lately?
A: I took my kids to see The Lego Movie. It was very good, but I can't get the song out of my head.
Q: What do you like to watch on TV?
A: My wife and I love Dateline. My wife says she's getting good ideas of how to get rid of me (laughs). I like Jeopardy and The Big Bang Theory, and I find myself watching Sponge Bob oftenbecause of my three kids. They take over the TV and I wind up watching Sponge Bob.
Q: What would we be surprised to learn about Dr. Phillip Franco?
A: I think people would be surprised to know that I am a big fan of James Bond movies and that I can beat anybody on earth in a James Bond trivia contest. Also, people are surprised to hear that I am one of the lifters of Giglio at The Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. They think I can't reach it!
Thank you, Dr. Franco.