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Village School the Academy of St. Joseph Teaches Compassion

GREENWICH VILLAGE — The private Catholic elementary school located alongside the Church of St. Joseph on Sixth Avenue in Greenwich Village may be small in size — with just 63 students — but the head of the school says it has a big heart. 

Angela Coombs, principal of the Academy of St. Joseph located at 111 Washington Place, says she focuses on turning children (from pre-kindergarten through fourth grade) into good students and kind people. That's not a task she takes lightly. 

"When a parent entrusts their child to a school, that is a big responsibility and a big gift that they're giving us," she said. "We are going to spend more awake time with their child than they are."

The Academy, which boasts a maximum of 18 students per classroom, opened in 2007, after the parish school in its five-story building closed because of low enrollment, said Coombs, 55. 

Today the Archdiocese of New York-affiliated school is growing by a grade each year before it will top out with an eighth grade class in 2015. 

It is primarily attended by children who live in the Village, about half of whom belong to the parish. 

The steep cost of tuition — $21,000 per year with only 10 percent of families receiving financial aid — is worth it, said Coombs, an Ontario native and longtime school administrator. 

DNAinfo.com New York sat down with Coombs to find out more about the school.

Q: Tell me about the school motto, "Character, competence and compassion."

Angela Coombs: Character for me speaks of a person. I want our students to be a people of character — I want them to have substance about themselves. I want them to know what they value and to not waver on it because the world says something different. Be true to who you are and to your roots. 

Competence to me is not so much today about being book-smart. The computer makes us all very smart. It's about being aware — I tell my children that all the time. I think really smart people are people who know where they are smart. At our school, we are trying to help the children find where it is they are smart, and then [we want to] be smart enough to surround ourselves with people who are smarter in the places we're not so smart, because together we become something great.

The third principle, compassion, is about having a great heart. I say to the children, 'Even before you get to school, you've been given a present. When you open your eyes, you just got a present. God just gave you another day of life. That is the biggest gift you get today.' It's about having a grateful day and understanding that the reason we were brought together is to help one another. We always say 'Be the kindest person you know today.' In polishing ourselves we become more to give more to the world.

Q: What is it like to try to teach compassion in New York City, a place that is not always compassionate?

I think it's tough. I think that in New York City some things are made so real for our children at a young age. I grew up in a farming community, on a 200-acre farm. I never walked the streets and saw someone who didn't have a place to sleep. I never saw someone beat someone up. That life is so real for them. I don't know if that makes them hard. 

But I am trusting that our emphasis on compassion is going to make them very kind, generous adults. And they have wonderful role models. Their parents are very generous. In our school, I'm thinking that if all you know from 3-years-old is to be welcoming and kind and to be doing things that show the importance of taking care of others, than that's what you'll become like. 

Q: What's daily life like here? 

Starting in the 2012-2013 school year, Academy of St. Joseph students will have daily Spanish lessons and weekly violin lessons.
Starting in the 2012-2013 school year, Academy of St. Joseph students will have daily Spanish lessons and weekly violin lessons.
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Academy of St. Joseph

The children come between 8 and 8:30 a.m. Their parents take them up to their classroom and help them get settled and talk to their teacher. I do that because I want us all to understand that this is a partnership between home and school. It's not dumping your child off on the sidewalk. Sometimes a nanny comes, but some parents will stay and go to our morning assembly. 

A different student each week will lead us in morning assembly. I stand on the sidewalk and greet everyone. When the 8:25 a.m. bell goes, I come in, sit in the assembly hall and sit with the students and the parents who stay. [The selected student] says good morning to the group and he will name a prayer intention for the day. He and his family will pick a different prayer intention for each day, for the whole week.

Today [a kindergartener who led the prayer] prayed for 'all fathers and grandfathers in the world,' before Father's Day. 

We do our prayer, scripture, the pledge to the flag and then we recite our school pledge. Then the student tells the group something that happened on that day in history.

We offer art, P.E., music, chorus and library, which are all weekly.

The school day goes until 3 p.m. now but next year it will go until 3:30 because we're adding daily Spanish lessons and [weekly] violin for first grade to fifth grade. 

Spanish will be 30 minutes a day. Violin will be one 45-minute period per week. 

Q: Why did you decide to add the Spanish and violin instruction?

I think that our children need to know another language and be fluent in it. And we're teaching violin because someday I want to have a string ensemble! Students can make a decision about whether it's for them. That you've never done something before is not a reason for not trying. 

Q: What has it been like to start a school from scratch?

In this school, as I tell the children, we're pioneers. We're actually creating history. At the perimeter of our assembly hall I put names of all great men and women throughout history and the last word is "you." We talk about how, because of the choices these men and women made, they have impacted history. We are so fortunate because we have been chosen to write history. In establishing the traditions and practices of our school, we are creating something that will outlive us. 

I want the children to understand the importance of their life — that life is the most precious gift and every day they have a chance to do something big. It might not be big in perspective to the world, but it might be huge in relationship to one person, the difference you can make for someone. 

Q: If families have the option to send their kids to public school, why should they invest in your school?

I truly believe that when our students leave us, they will stand apart from others. They will have a very strong presence about themselves — be very confident and articulate and solid. Their character will be so apparent and they will be kind people. They will have a spirit that's rooted in compassion.

Excellence in academics is a given. That's our responsibility as educators. Our students should be very competitive. The other stuff — the moral, the values, the character formation, the compassion — those are things that I think we add to the academics. 

Q: What are your goals for next school year?

My first goal is always to continue what we're doing well and to keep our mission at the forefront. Are we still a people of character, competence and compassion? Are we moving forward? 

Next year we'll be mapping out what our middle school will look like. We'll be adding grades and that will bring new families to us, which were not with us in the elementary years. We'll look at how we can transition... How can we hold onto the goodness that has started here even when we're growing bigger?