By JOEY REISTROFFER
GREENVILLE — The final bell for the school year has rung, and the students have dashed off for a little summer fun. That gives Keith Kiser time to reflect on his first year as headmaster of St. Joseph’s High School. It has been a blessed one indeed.
The school is expanding and enrollment is surging. Leaders of the school have also developed a solid foundation with the Diocese of Charleston.
The diocese’s approval and warm welcome have been crucial for Kiser this year. Before accepting the job at St. Joseph’s, it was one of his primary concerns.
Before the move South, Kiser said he was happy as headmaster of Aquinas Academy in Pittsburgh. Aquinas Academy also was a new school, and Kiser, who stepped aboard as headmaster in the school’s second year, was leading it closer to the Lord.
“In some ways, I thought I would always be there,” he said of setting down roots after three years at the Pittsburgh school.
Then, on the Feast Day of St. Joseph, Kiser said he received correspondence from the leaders of the Catholic school in Greenville. He was about to throw the letter in the trash, then thought better of the hasty action.
“I called two of the board members, and liked what I heard,” he said. “The one concern I had was the diocesan relationship.” The school had not yet been welcomed into the fold.
So he and his family prayed, trying to discern God’s will. Finally, they decided to pull up stakes and establish new roots in the Upstate.
After one year at St. Joseph’s, Kiser said he has had no regrets, especially since Bishop Robert J. Baker has opened wide his arms to accept the students and the school.
“We’ve had so many blessings flow from this relationship,” Kiser said. “Students and teachers alike are visiting the Blessed Sacrament Chapel for a moment of prayer. The bishop has been on the campus. Pastors are coming to the campus to celebrate Mass and to take confessions, especially on the feast days.”
On the Feast Day of St. Joseph the Worker, Kiser said the school chartered three buses for a trip to Charleston, where the students celebrated with a special Mass by Bishop Baker. Then they broke into nine groups for a day of work.
“That is going to become a tradition,” Kiser promised.
Through these activities, the school is coming closer to the Lord.
Of course, reading, writing, science and arithmetic are important to Kiser, and he has hired solid teachers so the students will develop a first-class education. But Kiser also wants his students to grow spiritually, and he has established a campus atmosphere to foster those beliefs.
It starts with the teachers, he said. They are the mentors. They set the examples. When students see a teacher visit the Blessed Sacrament Chapel, they know it is OK to pray. When they see teachers staying late after school to help a student with a problem, they realize these educators are here for their benefit. It is not a 9-to-5 job to them.
In his first year, Kiser introduced the school to the Team Concept. He divided the students into nine teams that crossed class boundaries, and established friendly competitions and chores throughout the year that helped the teams build up points. At the end of the year, the winning team received the “Headmaster Cup.”
This allowed older students to work with younger peers, Kiser said, and it also created a spirit of service on campus.
Each team designed a T-shirt. Then they got to know each other, work with each other and grow from the experience. One game they played was a takeoff of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire.” They called it “Who Wants to be an Academic Scholar.”
“They enjoyed it,” Kiser said, and it set a positive tone and atmosphere on campus, giving the students a “feeling of ownership of the school.”
Kiser said he already is talking with rising seniors about the Team Concept for next year.
As enrollment grows, Kiser wants to maintain that small-school feeling. So next year, he will introduce an experimental mentoring program called “Form Master.”
Each class will have a female and male teacher that they can lean on during difficult times. These teachers will take on added responsibilities for the students during their four years at St. Joseph’s. “That teacher will be mother or father for them while they are here,” Kiser explained.
“My hope is that no student will fall through the cracks,” Kiser said, adding that he had seen the program implemented at a Catholic school in Dallas.
With a freshman class of 90 to 100 enrolling for the next school year, and a total enrollment of 225 to 235 students expected, Kiser wants each student to know he or she is important to him.
“My primary interest is in mentoring each student from enrollment to graduation,” Kiser said. “And as the school grows, more emphasis needs to be placed on this.”
So he is hiring top-notch educators with solid Catholic faiths to ensure the academic and spiritual growth of those in his care.
One teacher he is bringing on board is John Devanny, an academic dean who taught at the Governor’s School. Devanny has a Ph.D. in history, and impressed Kiser with his faith.
Michael Pennell, Ph.D., is also coming on board. He is an English teacher who taught at the Catholic high school in Dallas that had implemented the Form Master mentoring program.
With Devanny and Pennell coming in to teach, and with the blessing of Bishop Baker, Kiser is excited about the future at St. Joseph’s. He hopes families in the Upstate also feel the potential of this Catholic high school as it molds students in the image of God and brings together “people who love our Lord.”
That is what makes a school special, he said.
“For St. Joseph’s to thrive, the entire Catholic community of the Upstate needs to be behind it,” Kiser added. “St. Joseph’s needs to be the home team.”
Kiser has seen what one year filled with prayer and blessings can do for a school, and he likes the path both he and the school are taking. “I’ve been very happy,” he said.