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4 August

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Marist Bulletin - Number 149


Frère Michael Flanigan

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Frère Michael Flanigan
President of Mount Saint Michael Academy in the Bronx, New York

Brother Michael Flanigan, 47 years old, was born in New York. He holds undergraduate degrees in English and French and a Masters Degree in Theology from Fordham University in the Bronx; has taught various subjects in Marist schools; was in charge of his Province’s vocation ministry for five years, assistant Provincial for three years, and before that, the director of a program associated with the judicial system, helping troubled young people return to private life. These days Michael is President of Mount Saint Michael Academy, “The Mount,” in the Bronx, New York.

Br. Lluis Serra

In films such as “Bonfire of the Vanities” the Bronx comes across as a dangerous place, even squalid. You live there – tell us what it’s like.
The Bronx is similar to any large city. It has some dangerous areas with high crime, and it has some very beautiful areas. The city of New York welcomes so many people from all over the world, and often, particular groups congregate together. For instance, in the area where the Mount is located, there is a large Jamaican population. But to paint the picture that the Bronx is a completely dangerous spot would be very wrong.

What are some basic facts and figures about your high school?
We have a beautiful 22-acre campus in the north Bronx. We opened our doors in 1926 as a boarding school, and since the 1970’s have become just a day school. You can see our school by going to www.mountstmichael.org
We presently have 1119 students enrolled from grades 6 – 12. There are 964 in the high school (grades 9 – 12) and 155 in the junior high (grades 6 – 8). There is a principal for both of these schools. While the junior high school is slightly different, the high school is 40% Latino, 37% African American or Caribbean American, 19% Caucasian, and 3% Asian. The Catholic population is 64% with another 33% belonging to other Christian denominations.

How would you describe the young people who attend the Mount?
Our students are on their way to college. We are a college preparatory school. But many of them have difficulty in paying the tuition. Our Catholic elementary and high schools in the U.S. do not receive any support from the government, so students must pay tuition to come to the school. Also, alumni and other benefactors help tremendously in keeping the tuition down. Last year, over a third of the students received some kind of tuition assistance, and over $730,000.00 was given for this purpose. So, many of our kids are poor, and they would not be able to afford a Catholic education if they didn’t get help.
But there is a spirit in our students that is special. I am so proud of them and I can tell you that whenever anyone meets one of our kids, they always remark about how polite and interesting they are!

What about the different races and languages – are they problematic when you’re working to build an educational community?
It’s true that language could be a problem, but nothing that can’t be overcome. At a recent parent teacher conference, a woman came to me because she hadn’t brought her son with her, and she could not speak English. So, whenever she needed help, I would go over with her to the teacher to translate. We always manage somehow. As far as race is concerned, our students reflect the reality of our city and the Bronx. There is rarely a problem because of race. The students are proud to be Mount students, and that’s what unites them.

Fact or fiction – Do your students have to pass through metal detectors when they come to school every day?
I am sorry that I had to laugh when I read this question. But, I understand why you asked. So many of the public (government) high schools in the Bronx DO have metal detectors. At the Mount, there is a real sense of community and trust among the students and the faculty. I wouldn’t even think of that. No, as the students come in each morning, they do pass members of the administration who try to stand in the different doorways to greet them. But our only problems there are reminding the students to fix their ties and take out their earrings!

No problems because we talking about a high class school…
If you look at our school, you would think we are a very prestigious private academy. Once inside, you see that we welcome everyone, and reach out to those who would not be able to afford a Catholic education.

Years back I read something called the Coleman report, which claimed that the wealth of a Catholic school in the USA is due to good relations among its teachers, families, and students (its social capital)… Do you agree with that?
It is so true about our schools in general, and I can attest that there is a family spirit in our school. I recently spoke to our parents’ organization about what Marist values are, and when I talked about the importance of all groups working together for the betterment of their children, and how that is not true of all schools, I could see a lot of heads nodding in agreement. That, I believe, is essential to the attitude that St. Marcellin Champagnat wanted in us as educators of young people.

Why do you think families choose to send their children to the Mount?
Firstly, we are an excellent school. Because of our beautiful property, we have many opportunities for sports and other activities. But a tendency would be to say that those are the only reasons why parents want their sons to come here, plus the fact that we offer a safe environment. I am amazed and very happy that so many parents, when they come to see the school, are happy that there is a four-year retreat program in place, religion classes every day for 45 minutes, and 60 hours of Christian service as a requirement for graduation.

What would you highlight as the outstanding quality in your students?
Our students are surprisingly honest. I say surprisingly, not because I am personally surprised, but because it would go against what most people would expect of them. These kids are tough, street-wise New York City kids. They know people by looking at them. They can spot what is authentic from what is phony. In my own dealings with them, I’ve been humbled by how honest they really are. There is a simplicity and trust in them that is refreshing.

How have the events of September 11, 2001 impacted the field of education?
It’s a funny thing. I have taken longer than I wanted to respond to this interview. One of the things that I kept avoiding was this question. We don’t like to think of what happened on September 11th two and a half years ago. And yet we live with this. Our students are probably more aware of what’s going on in the world. Most everyone here knows at least one person who was killed in the attack. The Mount lost 9 graduates in the Twin Towers attack.

A modern school isn’t just about achieving academic success, i.e., good grades, but also about fostering the holistic development of its students. Is this educational aim an integral part of your program?
Of course; a well-rounded education involves not only academic learning, but a spiritual and psychological foundation. We have a very intensive guidance program at the school. Each student has a guidance counselor whom he sees at least once during the year by invitation and much more frequently at the student’s request. In addition, we have an extensive Campus ministry program.

What does your school provide in the area of religion?
I’ve talked already about our service and religion classes. We have two full time people who work in Campus Ministry and who organize all the prayer services, retreats, and service opportunities. Something special to me is how our students respond to needs. At Thanksgiving time, we collected food to feed 57 poor families in the Bronx. Each week we collect money for the Missions. Many of our students cannot afford to give much, but they do give because they know that there are people less fortunate than they are. We sponsor a student at one of our apostolates among the poor in the United States, the Guadalupe Project, which provides free Catholic education to children of families in greatest need in Brownsville, Texas, on the border with Mexico.

How do teenagers and young adults in the United States look upon Saint Marcellin Champagnat?
Our students at Mount, and in all of our schools, are very attracted to Fr. Champagnat. Every year in October, students, who are first trained, go to each class and give presentations on his life. This past year we had 13 students who presented to 55 classes. Our students are very interested in St. Marcellin’s life and mission. Each month, approximately 20 students meet at school at 5:30 for prayer, discussion and dinner. The focus of this “Marist Youth Group” is how we can further educate the members of our school community so that all can see themselves as “Marist”.

Do the men and women teaching at the Mount feel a strong attachment to Marist values?
Yes, I believe strongly that our faculty welcome Marist values, and see themselves as sharing very much in our mission and call. They are very supportive of our students, their families, and the Brothers.

Share with us an experience you’ve had in educating young people that made you very happy.
I recently went on a retreat with 40 of the members of the 11th grade. The week after we got back, one of those young men was very disrespectful to a teacher, and when I saw the teacher, he told me of the situation and that the young man mentioned he was going to talk to me. When I sat down with this young man, he told me of how sorry he was that he did what he did, but could not control his anger. He wanted to talk to me, not because I was the President, but because I was his “brother”. I had him sit down with the teacher and they were able to work things out after the young man apologized. The fact that students can see the Brothers as their advocates as well as their educators makes me happy.

Thanksgiving Day is a big holiday in the United States and I think it’s really great. When you celebrated that special day at the end of last November, to whom or for what were you thankful?
I gave thanks to God for all that he has given me personally, and for the people he has brought into my life. I thanked him for my family, for the gift of our Marist brotherhood, and for the students, faculty and staff of Mount St. Michael Academy!

… Now it’s my turn. Thanks, Michael!

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