Each week, DNAinfo.com talks to a principal from one of Manhattan's schools. This week, it's Sister Mary Dixon of Holy Cross School at 332 W. 43rd St. A Dominican nun who lives just up the street, Dixon has been principal at the 125-year-old school for 25 years, and has seen the school — and the neighborhood — change over that time.
Where did you go to school?
I went to all Catholic schools. I went to Holy Spirit Grammar School, I went to Aquinas High School. Then I worked and after I worked, I decided to enter the convent at 19. I went to Dominican College in Blauvelt, N.Y. while I was in training to become a sister.
I was trained to be a teacher, we practice-taught on the property where we train. We have an institution and at that time it was for children from broken homes.
What was your best subject?
I liked school very much. Probably English was one of the things that I enjoyed. I had very good teachers, it’s the reason I became a teacher. I would have become a teacher whether I had entered the convent or not. The sisters that taught me, they were real educators, they made school fun. You didn't dread coming to school because they found a way to make it enjoyable.
Is there a teacher or principal you had that stands out? Why?
Collectively, they were all just very good teachers. Some of the things that happened to me when I was a child at school, I actually used when I was a teacher. I had an eighth grade teacher who would read a book at the end of the day, and that meant everybody had to be quiet. If there was talking, she’d stop, and she’d say ‘I’m so sorry, we can’t continue the story.’ The name of the book was ‘The Good Bad Boy,’ it was about a boy who did good things, did bad things — and I used that technique when I actually taught the first grade and had sixteen children in the class. It was a great technique. You stood up and all you did was point to a row, got up, and they knew you’d stop reading if they didn't follow the rule.
When did you decide to become a teacher and then a principal?
The community that I entered — the Dominican Sisterhood — their focus was on teaching and child care and so when we were sent to school, we were sent with the thought that we would be teachers, if we passed all the requirements. If you didn't pass the requirements, you wouldn't become a teacher. I realized as I started teaching and working with other people how well-trained we really were, and of course at the time we didn't think it. It became so ingrained some of the techniques that they taught us that we didn't think anything of it, we just thought ‘this is what you do.’
I didn't decide to become a principal — the sister who was principal here before me was a Dominican also, from my community, she was asking to leave the position, and I was called by a leadership team and asked to become a principal. I was working down in the Lower East Side, in charge of religious education at Our Lady of Sorrows School, and I was very happy there. Someone said to me, ‘why don’t you try it for a year? If you don’t like it, you can leave it.’
I found out that in this position you can do things that you wouldn't have been able to do as a teacher, so I stayed.
How has the school changed since you've become principal?
The school was always a school full of immigrant children. Originally, they were the children whose fathers worked down at the piers, so they would come here, drop their children off, go down to the piers and work, come back and pick them up.
Now, the population is still immigrant, but it’s changed. Within the building we have some 30 languages.
What is the most important thing that you want students graduating the school to have learned?
I always want them to know that they have a place to come back to. That we rejoice with their successes, and that we've always pushed them to be the best that they can be, and to be able to perform up to their abilities. I think I've seen that happen when former students come back to school and say ‘I thought it was tough when I was here, but I realize now what I know.’
It’s an inner-city school, challenges here you might not have anywhere else. Many of the children are bilingual, English is not their first language. You deal with that wanting to respect their culture and their language, yet wanting them to be the best they can be in society, in New York, or wherever they’re going to be — and that they’re competitive. I want them, when they get to the eighth grade, to be able to have options.
What makes this school different from other schools?
I think what sets it apart is a great diversity. I also think that it’s different in that many of the parents bring their children here to school on their way to work, you don’t have a lot of that in other schools, they’re more contained. They’re like a neighborhood. We do have neighborhood students, but we do have a number of students who travel because their mothers work here in the city, and that’s what makes it different.
What do you want the school to look like in five years?
I want us to have a second language as a part of the curriculum. I’d like us to be more technologically savvy, that the students would have a greater knowledge of what you can do with technology to help them in their education.
What are the obstacles to achieving your vision for the school, and how will you deal with them?
Money. It’s money. The tuition pays only part of the bills for a year. You’re very much dependent upon tuition. Tuition this past year was $3,500 for one child, $4,600 for two.
Who’s the student that you believe you've had the most impact on?
About two years ago, I met a student who had a very rough life. His was beaten by his father. I remember taking him in one night, and had him stay overnight with us because he was afraid to go home to his father.
At the time, he didn't say too much about it, and I met him about two years ago and he just went on and on about what it meant to him to be a student at Holy Cross, that people cared for him. It wasn't just the education he received, but that people truly cared about what happened. I think that is something that we work hard to make the students know, that they’re valued and because we’re a Catholic school, religion is part of it. We emphasize the fact that yes, we do care about them — and that God cares about them. We want them to know that.