MEATPACKING DISTRICT — A quick walk from the upscale shops and exclusive nightclubs of the Meatpacking District is where 306 girls in plaid skirts study the Catholic liturgy, Latin and the teachings of a 17th century French nun.
Jaclyn Brilliant, the principal of Notre Dame School at 327 W. 13th St., said warmth and one-on-one instruction are the secrets to success at the college prep high school, which turns 100 this year.
Brilliant, 47, said a staff that includes 25 teachers, three counselors and three stereotype-defying nuns help students achieve the school's 100 percent college acceptance rate.
Brilliant, who took over as principal this year after 21 years as an English teacher and in the fundraising office, recently talked with DNAinfo about the school's character.
Q: Do students go to mass every day? How Catholic would you say the school is?
Jaclyn Brilliant: There's a liturgy about once a month. We have a new chapel that was donated by the class of '56. Students don't have to attend, but many of them do.
[The students] all take religion every year and they learn about the Catholic sacraments in particular. They also study world religions and they have a faith and justice course. They're learning about the Catholic faith but they're also learning about other religions. About 90 percent of them come from Catholic school backgrounds, but are they all practicing Catholics? No.
Q: How would you describe the school's principles?
Our school was founded by the Sisters of St. Ursula. The woman behind it is Anne de Xiantonge. I think that sets us apart. Her whole mission back in the 1600s, in France, was to educate girls. We take our mission from her beliefs. She wanted girls to be educated in the same way that she saw boys being educated. She was watching the Jesuits and she wanted the same thing for girls.
Another core [principle] that we take from her is that you don't have to be wealthy to be educated. She wanted all young women to have access, so we still try to live by that. About 70 percent of our students receive some type of scholarship or financial aid. Even though our tuition is modest — it's under $10,000 [per year] — we realize it can be a lot of money every month for a working family.
Q: What do you think is the benefit for students of going to an all-girls' school?
They say that it makes them feel comfortable and less distracted. It also builds confidence. It's automatic to them during these four years that they are the leaders, or that they have the opportunity to be the leaders.
Q: Why does the school teach Latin?
It's part of our tradition. It probably comes from our Catholic roots, and we have a fabulous Latin teacher who's an alum of the school. It's been really helpful in terms of vocabulary and kids actually seem to enjoy it.
Q: How do you think stereotypes about strict nuns match up to reality?
It's frustrating for me. Nothing could be farther from the truth. I actually find they're incredibly flexible and that [nuns] really do take the charitable parts of the Christian message to heart. They're very loving and forgiving. There's not a lot of rigidity. Everyone here is looking out for the student.
Q: What is it like to have this school in the Meatpacking District?
We've always found ourselves in a situation like this, in these glamorous neighborhoods. … The neighborhood was trendy when we moved in in 2001, and it's just gotten more so. Every day you turn around and it's more deluxe, and we're kind of this working-class, working-poor type of school. It's not like our teachers can afford to shop at the stores that are outside our door. [laughed]
Q: What is the school planning in its 100th year?
We have our annual benefit luncheon, which is a reunion and fundraiser on March 31. That should be bigger than ever this year.
We made these "Got 100?" bracelets and did this project called 100 Great Works. It was a teacher's idea that the faculty should come up with a list of 100 essential works — poems, stories, scientific theories, prayers, meditations, historical documents. Everyone pitched in. She tried to boil it down to 100 but didn't have the heart to do it. She got it down to 175, so we said we had our 100, plus a head start for the next century. We've been trying to teach these works in classes.
Q: How would you sum up what you think is special about this school?
Intimacy. A lot of schools are small but we really value our intimacy and our family-like environment. The school's nickname is Chez Nous and we try to take that seriously. It's our home. We want the kids to feel at home and welcome here, and that applies to the faculty here, too. I think people do tend to treat the school like it's their home.
I also think we're going against the trend of trying to make things too regimented. That goes for faculty, too. We all have a different teaching style and it doesn't have to be the same. We want our kids to do well on standardized tests and we have certain goals we want to meet, but we're not overly particular about how you get there.
I think we do a great job of helping kids take that next step. Students come in with a range of abilities and all of them go to a four-year college, and some go to the best schools in the country.
Also, there's a real fondness here between teachers and students — a mutual regard. And that's kind of unusual for teenagers, and kind of a nice thing.