Save your puns; Brian Pope, principal of St. Francis Catholic School, has heard them all.
As soon as he steps through the door of a classroom he’s met by an enthusiastic chorus of fourth graders: “Good morning, Mr. Pope!” He returns the greeting then asks one student, by name, what she’s working on. It’s a class project about the dangers of drugs.
Brian Pope, the new principal of St. Francis by the Sea parish school on Hilton Head, prides himself on knowing all of his students on a first-name basis. “The relationships between teachers and students here is very close,” he tells a visitor, “and creating that special bond is part of our effort to build character as well as guide a child’s spiritual and educational growth.”
Photo by Russell Greene
The north island Catholic school, home to 180 students from 4-year-old pre-kindergartners to eighth-grade middle school teens, has been his only professional home since earning a secondary education credential from New York’s Niagara University in 2001. And the 32-year-old Pope, who indeed has heard every religious pun possible about his surname, seems well-suited for a position that puts him in charge of guiding youngsters toward productive futures.
“My mother was a high school English teacher in upstate New York for over 30 years, so I grew up around schools and was kind of a workroom rat,” Pope says with a smile. “I was always hanging out with teachers and was raised in (an extended) teacher family. I started teaching martial arts when I was about 12 years old so that was my first real experience.” After his required student teaching stint in college — “my first day teaching alone was 9/11, which made a major impression on me about being able to provide kids with spiritual help” — he followed his retiring parents (Michael and Rebecca) to Hilton Head and found an open slot in 2002 teaching social studies, science, religion and physical education to middle school students at St. Francis.
“I love that age,” he says. “Middle school is where I spent my teaching career here and I was able to build close relationships with most of the kids as they sometimes go through turbulent times.” Pope also coached “pretty much every sport,” holding practices in a school parking lot as athletic director while teaching full time. He later became assistant principal until spring of last year when he was named new principal, the first “Pope of St. Francis” if you will.
As principal he oversees all administrative and educational needs on a spacious campus that he envisions as “a model school for the 21st century.” New technology takes precedence in classrooms, with computerized white screens replacing those chalk-squeak blackboards of yesteryear. Ongoing upgrades in computer science programs are geared toward putting iPads in the hands of every middle school student by next year, and a new high-tech security system to enhance safety for students and a 26-member faculty/support staff that currently includes a quartet of teaching nuns from the Dominican Sisters of the Mary Mother of the Eucharist.
“We’ve made a lot of advancements this year,” Pope says, crediting his staff and a dedicated cadre of parent volunteers who help out with tutoring, coaching and daily hot lunches. Recent fundraising by the parish led to construction of a new gym/multipurpose facility that holds more than 1,000 for athletics, assemblies and performances. “This is a real community school with kids who come from good families … our discipline problems are minimal beyond making sure their (uniform) shirts are tucked in and they’re wearing the right shoes.”
Old-school values remain essential at St. Francis, which offers art and band plus required Spanish and Algebra courses that will be credited when graduates move on to private or public high schools. “There’s also a religion class for every grade, we pray every day, and we go to mass together.”
Pope and spouse Amanda, a teacher at St. Gregory the Great in Bluffton, welcomed their first child Camille this year and St. Francis appears in good hands with a Pope at the helm. “Kids today get a wealth of knowledge and tools and we focus on how to use them appropriately for the common good. When a child leaves here we want to have given them the skills that will be make them successful wherever they go.”