Kinsey on plans for St. Joe High School
Dena Kinsey has been principal of St. Joseph Catholic School since the spring semester of 2017. With the new school year having begun, Kinsey is trying to ensure the word gets out about what St. Joe has to offer, while ensuring every student and teacher has the space and opportunity to learn and teach. Kinsey is a Mississippi State University graduate with a degree in education, and she has been with St. Joe for five years. Sun Staff Writer Megan Phillips spoke with Kinsey about her goals for the 2017-2018 school year.
You started at St. Joseph this past spring as principal, correct?
So, you were here before then?
“I was. This is my fifth year at St. Joe. I taught eighth grade religion for two years, and then I moved to senior religion and became the high school director for a year and three quarters.”
How did you end up becoming principal?
“Well, because I was high school director, and I was already a licensed administrator. I had all those credentials, so when our previous administrator left at spring break, it was an easy fit to just put me in there.”
Where were you before you came to St. Joseph?
“I was at St. Richard. I taught math at St. Richard, and I’ve done some time in public schools, but I was really more of a Catholic school person. It’s my 15th year to be officially in education, but I spent almost 10 years working for Security Ballew, which is a retirement planning firm in Northeast Jackson in LeFleur’s Gallery. I was their customer service person. Teaching was my calling.”
How did you get into teaching?
“Well that’s what I majored in during college. I tried to do other things, but teaching just seemed to fit. It was just one of those things that I always thought I should do. Those years that I was out of the teaching world, I just couldn’t ever get teaching out of my system. So, I just eventually had to come back.”
What are the challenges of public versus private education?
“Kids are kids, so it really doesn’t matter. It’s just the system that is different, and I felt in the Catholic school that I had a better ability to reach the entire child instead of just my subject matter… I like the way the Catholic schools deal with the whole child and not just the subject or the testing area. I don’t ever feel the pressure in the Catholic school system to get them to a certain level so that you pass the state test… We appreciate growth, so we don’t have those standards that we have to adhere to that the public schools do as far as testing goes.
“We’re accredited so still follow the curriculum guidelines, we just don’t do the state testing. It gives us a little more balance to slow down or speed up when we need to.”
As this is your first full year as principal, what are your plans for the school year?
“That’s a tough one… Although, enrollment’s up (390 to 409 this year), I’d like to see our message get out there, that we’re really about teaching the whole student. We teach students on multiple levels, so we don’t limit to the college prep kids or the kids who struggle. We have a plethora of different children. I would like for people to know that. I feel like St. Joe has the reputation of being a nurturing school, but we’re also a very good school. Last year, I had three national merit finalists… We have 20 varsity sports, and then we have ceramics and choir and band and art and piano. We offer a lot, and I don’t think people realize that.
“And I have a great faculty, so if it wasn’t for the great faculty, the school wouldn’t be what it is. What I do is somewhat inconsequential into what they do. They’re doing what they do every day. St. Joe’s going to be great whether I’m here or not.”
Are you making any specific changes?
“Well I’ve added a program, we’re calling it SALT (Strategic Alternative Learning Techniques). It’s to help the kids who need more than the accommodations that a teacher can make in a classroom… We’re starting it in the middle school, and we have a couple of students who came from St. Richard. They don’t fit into the special kids’ program at St. Richard, which teaches life skills and gives them those types of experiences. These children can function in the regular classroom, but they need a little more help than what the teacher can do.”
As a principal, what is priority one?
“Teaching and learning is priority one. But, Mother Catherine McAuley, who founded the Sisters of Mercy, which started St. Joe — they’re the reason St. Joe has been in existence since 1870, said that our job is to fit young people for the world without unfitting them for heaven. I think that is such a great line. I just love that. It’s just so what we do. We try to make them responsible, contributing members of society… I want them to be better when they leave me than when they got here.”
Will students, faculty and parents notice any of your changes immediately?
“The SALT program they’ve noticed immediately. We’ve painted the gym. We’ve got new tile on the floor in the gym. When we painted the gym, we changed the color — the whole look. So, we didn’t just slap up new paint. The administrator’s lobby is all different. People have come before and noticed it. We’ve upgraded bathrooms and the concessions stands. We’re working on the sound system, and we’re getting some new bleachers on the visitors’ side. We’re trying to make it a better experience. We have a tougher football schedule this year, and it’s much more local teams, so we’re expecting larger crowds and expecting our crowds to travel more. And, we added a flag core to the marching band, so that’s pretty noticeable.”
How has education changed since you started working in education 15 years ago?
“Well when I first started working in education, it was 1991. I graduated from Mississippi State University and went straight into DeSoto County and taught first grade. Like I said, kids are kids. Kids haven’t changed. But there’s a greater awareness of not just the ways in which children learn but the problems that children have learning than there was when I started.
“We were adapting at that time for the visual learners and the kinesthetic learners and the auditory learners. It gave you different approaches and it made your lesson more interesting to all the kids, because the sit-and-get lecture style is not efficient anymore. So that’s changed. Now we’ve changed to not only making sure the kids have multiple paths to learning something, but that we figure out why they are not getting it a certain way.
“We’ve moved to a facilitation method of teaching, more Socratic style, than stand and lecture. Kids need to have an ownership in their learning, and with the invention of technology, the research is right there at their fingertips. Now the responsibility is being pushed to getting it into their hands and have the teacher, as the master and the expert, facilitating and guiding…”
What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned in school administration?
“I didn’t pay enough attention to accounting. The finance and facilities aspects of it were my biggest learning curves. I know teachers, I know kids — I do that well. But facilities management and accounting, that was a lot. I had no clue what it took to keep a campus of this size going. I had a general idea, but… it’s unbelievable how much it costs to run all this. Then we have great parent organizations. Some support athletics, some support the fine arts, and they all have their own financial system that plays into ours. It’s all piggy-backed off each other, and everything comes through the school.”
What are the biggest challenges facing St. Joseph right now?
“I don’t have enough classrooms for all the classes I’d like to offer. I’d like to offer more than what we can do, but we offer a lot… We want to grow, so we’re trying to figure out the best way to do that and not undo something we’ve done years before.
“The teaching and learning part seems to be flowing really well right now. But just finding a room for people to teach a class, making sure everybody has the opportunity to do all the things they want to do is hard, because we’re small and there are conflicts… So, you have to choose what you want to do, and we don’t want any of our programs to suffer. Our teachers have really done a great job of sharing students for activities, and that’s a benefit of St. Joe.”
What’s been positive about your experience at St. Joseph in your past five years as well as since you became principal?
“Probably the out-pouring of community support. We have 16 different parishes in the greater Jackson area who support St. Joe, and those pastors and those youth ministers and all those people have been invaluable in their support. They come do mass for us, they help us financially, they promote us to their parishioners. So, that’s been my biggest surprise. I’ve met so many people, and there are a lot of people who are really passionate about this school. I don’t know that I’ve met anybody who’s been anti-St. Joe. Lots of people have great ideas about how to make St. Joe better, so, part of my job is to figure out what I can do and what I can’t do and see the big picture and try to make it work, because there really are a lot of people who are passionate about this school.”