Chris Gavin, our new principal, joined us in the summer of 2014 after 28 years as principal at Bellarmine Preparatory School. This interview provides both background information about Chris and his vision for the future.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in a catholic parish in New York. A kid from Brooklyn, I went to St. Agatha’s in Brooklyn. My dad was a civilian who worked for the Navy, so when the yard closed down, we moved to Bremerton. I went to Our Lady Star of the Sea. I was one of those kids who took two buses to get to the little Catholic school across town, but that was what was important to my parents.
Where did you attend high school and college?
I went to Bremerton High School. The idea of going to Seattle, to an O’Dea (or other private Catholic high school) was just out of the cards for us financially. I went on to Gonzaga University, where I met my wife, Doreen. That kind of started my journey with the Jesuits.
Where have you attended Mass?
Doreen and I have lived for many years in the North End (and still live in North Tacoma today). Our parish is St. Pat’s. Our two kids started their education at St. Pat’s. They graduated and went on to Bellarmine and graduated from there. Both of them are Jesuit college graduates. Neither one of them would go to Gonzaga (laughs). Doreen is a civil engineer and president of a local engineering firm.
What is your professional background?
I’m a school psychologist, so most of my work has been on the other side, working with kids as learners. To be a good administrator/principal, and working with really strong teachers, my starting point has always been, “What does the learner need?” I think that comes from my counseling and school psychology background.
I never felt like it was anything but good fortune, and God giving me opportunities to do what my heart desired, which was to work with young people and to work in a Catholic school. I still have that opportunity here — even after 28 years of being principal at Bellarmine. It comes at a time when Bellarmine is so strong, and it comes at a time that my own gifts may be well received by the community of St. Patrick.
Who was and is your mentor?
My mentor for those years was Sister Joyce Cox. She was always pleased to tell people that she hired me. She runs the Palisades Retreat Center, but previously was the (Catholic Schools) Superintendent, and has had numerous roles in the Archdiocese. Even today she’s in charge of Ecumenical Ministry.
I started as principal at Bellarmine when I was 28. I had the good fortune of also starting my career with Fr. Dan Weber as president at Bellarmine. I think he shaped my sense of spirituality, especially around Ignatian Spirituality. More important to me was how he showed me to live and work from within that spirituality. This Jesuit influence is reflected in things like the Bellarmine work-study program, where the dignity of that work and those who are in the program (both families and students) are never treated as second class citizens. That really stuck with me how somebody could live that ethos in their daily life.
Did you have a sense of calling to work in education?
Yes, I always knew I wanted to work with young people. I had always planned, if possible, to work in schools, and most importantly for me was to work in a Catholic school. It was really important to me to work in a place where not only values are shared, but the expression of faith was allowed and encouraged. To blend my professional work with my religious and spiritual life was what I always felt called to do.
How has faith intersected with your profession in education?
With Ignatian Spirituality, I started to be contemplative in action. My education, my reading, my constant interests in learning more about learning, teaching, kids’ development — all of that has been intertwined with the spiritual dimension and the faith formation, and really the transformation of kids’ lives. I can’t remember a time when education was not part of my spiritual journey.
Out of your years of experience as a high school principal, what lessons do you bring forward as you move to parochial education?
I think learning happens for kids not when they always feel competent, but when they feel safe and cared for, and are able to make mistakes while knowing that they are safe and cared for. And I think this school does that really well. I think good schools try to do that every day. There’s a big difference between challenging students and making things hard.
I think that God would want us to care for each other and care for our students in the ways that allow them to grow intellectually and in confidence, and that God would want our schools to be places of wonder and compassion and I think that’s what heaven is going to be. And I think good schools — Catholic, Christian, private, public — it doesn’t matter, first care for kids and then the hard work of learning, challenging, guiding and transforming them all comes together. That’s what I think I lead with.
What are some of the changes we may see at Saint Pat’s?
Bellarmine is going to a new math series to tie to “Common Core,” which the Archdiocese is asking all Catholic schools to consider, and so St Pat’s will be buying a new 8th grade algebra textbook. Realignment of curriculum starts with 6th, 7th and 8th grades. But it’s really, in my way of thinking, a 6-9th grade experience if we want kids to be ready for the college prep high school experience. Hopefully, whether going to Bellarmine, or wherever they go to school, I want all of them ready for that kind of experience, rather than only the higher achieving kids.
There have been discussions about moving from a junior high (7th through 8th grade model), to a middle school model (6th, 7th & 8th). The standards for the curriculum, from Common Core, are predicated on the middle school model of 6th, 7th & 8th. So with the strength of St. Pat’s having two classes in every grade level, partnerships are already a foundational part of how the faculty operates. So with 6th grade, it is really a matter of asking do we want to align our curriculum and our thinking about what type of formational activities and educational experiences we have for the 6th graders with those of 7th and 8th graders, or do we align it more with the intermediate 4th-5th-6th grade model.
The reading that I’ve been doing about Common Core has been brought into those discussions with teachers who are working on designing new curriculum. The school has asked the teachers to complete their curriculum maps around the essential learnings, designing those with Common Core standards in mind, and with that, they’re aligning it with 6th, 7th and 8th.
Why is it important to use collaboration in schools?
To me, it’s a fundamental way of being a professional. All the research in education is pointing to a verifiable curriculum, with a strong teacher-student relationship, and it’s a collaborative work environment that’s making the difference. There are great independent teachers who are creative and do terrific work independently. But most of us benefit from working with other people. Whether that’s just discussions of individual students that we’re maybe not so successful with, or sharing best practices or lessons. It’s a mindset that first and foremost we’re doing this together for the betterment of all the students of the school.
I think that collaboration is life-giving to professionals. It keeps what we do every day, always in our minds. We’re discussing it, we’re thinking about it, we’re sharing it with other people that we trust, or should trust, to help us be better. And I think it ties back to that verifiable curriculum.
What would you say are the key challenges you will tackle as you begin to lead Saint Patrick Catholic School?
The hiring, the collaboration (focused primarily on the curriculum mapping), and making sure that what we teach is tied to the standards of the Archdiocese and is done collaboratively. The master schedule has snuck in there on my plate a little.
What would you say about St. Pat’s to prospective families?
People choose to be in neighborhoods because of the quality of schools. Schools make a difference in the quality of those neighborhoods. Saint Pat’s is a parish school. It’s a long-established North End neighborhood school. And within that community, I think it expands to the greater neighborhood and community. It enriches the entire neighborhood.
From that neighborhood community I think families who are raising their children want the best for their kids now and in the future. They want strong foundations of values- based education, of moral education, of rigorous commitment to excellence in education, in a Christian Catholic community that welcomes people of all faiths. I think Saint Pat’s gives parents the necessary support to raise their children, together with other adults.
As a parent myself, I know I needed that. I think people will come and be part of something that will only get better. I love the title of the long-range plan for the Archdiocese, “Strength to Strength.” We will take the strength that Saint Patrick School has, and we will build on it. We will work with the strengths of the families in support of their kids and in support of other kids. Saint Pat’s has that kind of tradition and comes from that kind of strength as a community. I’m just really glad and feel fortunate to be part of this school.