John Jackson won’t be leaving the school he graduated from 46 years ago for several months, but the fact he has announced his retirement has already removed a level of stress. That’s part of it.
A recent visit to Bishop Hendricken High School found Jackson in the principal’s office. Behind him shelves had been cleared. Boxes on the floor were partially filled. The school was eerily quiet. The halls and classrooms were darkened.
Hendricken is Jackson’s life.
He started off teaching history in 1976. Classes were large, and at one point he had five classes with a total of 208 boys. The days of 40 students in a classroom are long gone at Hendricken. But even today there is always more than the classroom. Jackson was a basketball coach and involved in the school community. That’s part of being a Hendricken teacher.
Jackson lived the dark days of Hendricken when, with shrinking enrollment and struggling financially, the bishop decided to close the school. Parents rallied. They appealed to keep the fledgling school open. Their solidarity and commitment was impressive. The Christian Brothers stepped in, saving the school.
Jackson will never forget that day. He is eternally grateful to the Christian Brothers.
Jackson announced his retirement on June 13, at the same time the school disclosed the selection of Mark R. DeCiccio, an alumnus from the Class of 2003 to be the school’s principal. Jackson didn’t participate in DeCiccio’s selection, although he did provide the search committee with input on the type of person he believes the school needs and the school’s priorities going forward.
Jackson sees DeCiccio as valuing collaboration and having a calm and reassuring manner. Also critical to the job, in Jackson’s opinion, is a “people person” and a principal who will seek the advice of those at Hendricken.
As for some of the priorities going forward, Jackson talks about online courses and more electives for students. Adding electives will take some tinkering with scheduling to fit everything within the typical 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Hendricken day.
Also on Jackson’s short list is school enrollment, which is at 925. Registration for the incoming class this fall is off from where Jackson would like to see it. He’s not troubled, as registration goes through cycles.
“It’s a bit down,” Jackson said of enrollment, “but we’ll recover.”
Jackson is a veteran of the ups and downs of overseeing the school, since becoming its first lay president in 2011. He’s been there as the school’s Academic Decathlon team dominated the state competition and then went on to win its division in the national event.
On the down side, a proposal that the school operate a girls’ campus from Our Lady of Providence Seminary at the site of the Aldrich mansion on Warwick Neck where Overbrook Academy, an all-girls boarding school, had operated was turned down by the bishop. The diocese also rejected a proposal in collaboration with St. Kevin School to operate a junior high school. For the past four years Hendricken has operated a select honors institute, a scaled back junior high school with 20 to 33 boys.
“We’d love to have a full scale junior high to compete with LaSalle,” said Jackson.
For a period ending in 1994, Hendricken operated its senior campus at the seminary, reliving space at its main campus. But while the seniors liked the experience and independence from the lower classes, Jackson said, “When they came back to the main campus it was a good thing for the school.” The addition of the arts and technology wing to the campus, he said, “truly vaulted the school.” He said the attention on the arts helped develop a new culture in the school by emphasizing the importance of the arts and opening opportunities such as learning all aspects of theatre from acting and directing to staging and lighting.
Jackson maintains the greatest thing the school has done is the creation of the Options Program for ID (intellectually disabled) students. Presently, 10 ID students are enrolled in the program that recently celebrated its tenth anniversary. It was started by Brother Thomas Leto, who preceded Jackson as the school’s president. About 80 regular students serve as mentors for the ID students.
As always, finances are a persistent challenge for the school.
“We never have enough [money]. Every year it’s a struggle,” he said.
Tuition will increase in the range of 2.4 percent. Yet the school activity seeks out to assist families who would otherwise not be able to send their boys to Hendricken. The school has also reached out to China to augment enrollment and tuition while exposing American students to international students. The school actively recruits Chinese students and has a Hendricken Academy in China where boys are oriented to the school and take the Hendricken curriculum.
Jackson termed the rapid resignation of Principal Joseph “Jay” Brennan “a tragedy.” Brennan, who played Little League with Jackson and likewise graduated from Hendricken, resigned abruptly after a 10-second audio recording of him using a racial slur was aired by a local television station. No context was provided for the comment, nor was it disclosed when it was recorded or who had provided it to the station.
“He is a great teacher, guidance counselor and principal,” Jackson said of his friend. “Who among us wants their career judged by ten seconds,” he asked.
If there’s a regret to his career at Hendricken, Jackson said it is that it went too quickly. Reflecting on the changes that have happened and his pending departure, Jackson said, “It’s the end of the Brennan/Jackson era.”
Jackson said the process of selecting his successor would take place over the summer, and he expects to truly retire sometime this fall.