In our educational leadership series, we’re introducing you to individuals who shape the landscape and school culture at our partner institutions. This week, meet Jen Ripley, Principal of St. Pius X School. Fun fact about St. Pius X School? They are the only Catholic Montessori school in Maryland.
Meet the Principal: Jen Ripley of St. Pius X School
Tell us how you came to be principal of St. Pius X School?
I began at St. Pius X School in 2002 as a middle school social studies teacher, straight out of college. The Assistant Principal and Principal at the time persuaded me to go back for my Masters in Education and then to enroll in an Administration Cohort through Towson University. When the administration retired, I was asked to step up as Assistant Principal, a position I held for five years under a great mentor. When the former Principal moved to a different school, I was asked to step into the role of Principal, which I’ve held now for almost three years. I never set out to be an administrator, but I enjoy this job so much – it’s fulfilling and rewarding to interact with some many great people every day…we have a wonderfully supportive community of teachers, staff, students, and parents.
Many would be surprised to know that St. Pius X is a Montessori School. In fact, it’s the only Catholic Montessori School in Maryland. How does the Montessori educational philosophy work cohesively within a Catholic School?
We approach the child as a whole individual, capable of love, capable of hard work, capable of discovering the world around them at their own pace. Montessori values the whole child and our school is built around this concept. Not all children learn in the same capacity, therefore, our teachers’ lessons are designed to address each child at their own placement either reinforcing a concept or enriching an activity for an accelerated learner. Children are grouped in age ranges, allowing younger and older students to collaborate and learn through each other. We also utilize the Catechesis of Good Shepherd for our Montessori students which allows children, through the assistance of a trained Catechist to learn about the signs of the Catholic liturgy and Holy Scripture.
What does learning look like at St. Pius X School?
Learning at SPX is exciting and interactive; it’s student driven and engaging. If you were to walk through our halls, you’d hear noise – students interacting with one another and the materials and work in front of them. We don’t learn in silence and we don’t learn by sitting still. You’d hear problems being solved and new discoveries and connections being made. In our Atrium, you’d see students as young as 3 years old, listening to a parable from the Bible and working with a material depicting the Good Shepherd. In our upper school, you’d see cooperative learning and small group instruction, collaboration, problem solving and critical thinking. During the warmer months you’d see a group of students in our community garden weeding and sowing seeds, maybe even harvesting produce and herbs to use in a recipe in the classroom. Learning at St. Pius X School is a hands-on process focused on the individual learner. The learning that students do today prepares them for the careers of tomorrow that are not yet in existence.
Describe your leadership style. How does that impact educators who work for you at St. Pius X School? How about students?
My philosophy has always been that school should not be a prison, nor should it be a playground…instead it must offer every student, in every class, an opportunity to learn and grow. That learning and growth looks different for everyone. I approach my teachers and staff in the same way – I try not to dictate what needs to happen, instead allowing teachers to follow the curriculum in creative and engaging ways, forming lessons and sharing activities that stimulate, not stifle each child’s learning.
What do you think surprises prospective families about St. Pius X School?
I think prospective families see our seemingly traditional school from the parking lot and expect one thing and then enter the building and see something totally different – a very formal, clean-cut exterior gives way to a warm and welcoming interior full of laughter and hunger for knowledge. We are proving that an “old dog, can learn new tricks.” Our school was built in 1962, but our learning and approach is innovative and cutting edge. No more rows of desks and notes on a chalkboard. Instead, families are surprised with cooperative learning groups, one on one teaching, flexible seating, and movement within the learning environment.
You’ve served in several capacities at St. Pius X School, first as a teacher, then as Assistant Principal and now as Principal. How has the school evolved over the last 15 years?
Wow – 15 years! The school has shifted dramatically since I first began in 2002 both physically and academically. When I began my time here, we were a traditional Catholic school with desks in rows, chalkboards, and a computer lab. Today, we have a 1:1 ratio of Chromebooks for our middle school students, five well-established Montessori environments serving students ranging in age from 3-6 years, 6-9 years, and our newest group 9-11 years, and a team of teachers that work collaboratively on various initiatives throughout the school from PBIS (Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports) to experiential learning trips into the community. We have a community garden and we’ve just started building an outdoor learning environment to be completed this summer.
Looking into the future, what’s next for the school? What are you excited about?
I’m super excited to be embarking on the final leg of our transition from a strictly traditional Catholic school to a robust, thriving learning community where Montessori and hands-on, inquiry based learning meets high school prep and project based learning. New next year, we will have our first class of Montessori educated students enrolling in our revamped and overhauled middle school. Our commitment to rigorous and engaging lessons will be combined with project based learning and differentiation in the middle school, with traditional aspects of high school preparation infused – time management, organization, and study skills will be imbedded throughout each of our core subjects. Teachers are also working on professional development that analyzes not only formal assessment data, but also data collected during lessons and activities to continue to create and provide learning experiences for students that support critical thinking and 21st century problem solving skills.
This article is part of our school partner profile series. To learn more about St. Pius X School, visit their profile in our independent school directory. Photos by Laura Black.