“My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style.”
The words of wisdom offered by the late poet Maya Angelou are often overlooked in today’s social media-driven climate, where style is usually defined by the latest fashion or coiffure being worn by pop icons. When viewed through this prism, it tends to take on an air of ephemerality.
However, style can also have a much more profound meaning. It can be defined as class – a way of living one’s life by seeking out opportunities for making the world a better place.
This deeper definition of style is alive and well, and it is being practiced every day at Pope John Paul II Preparatory School.
Established in 2002, Pope John Paul II Preparatory School (Pope Prep) is widely renowned as one of the best private educational institutions in the Mid-South. Originally founded as a high school, Pope Prep expanded to include middle school grades during the fall of 2021. Today, the school is home for almost 800 students who are preparing to excel in college and beyond.
“At Pope Prep, we are known for academic achievement and for encouraging our students to reach,” says Interim Headmaster Karen Phillips. “However, we also excel in other pursuits, including art, music, theater and athletics. Our students have abundant opportunities to develop high levels of skills and depth in all their pursuits.”
Given its academic reputation, one would think that Pope Prep style would revolve around scholarship and achievement. However, that assumption is incorrect. At Pope Prep, style means inclusion.
“Our style is welcoming and inclusive,” says Jennifer Dye, school director of innovation. “There is a place and a space for all students, regardless of their interests or abilities.”
This philosophy of inclusion is embodied in all aspects of life at Pope Prep and is pivotal to the school’s mission to develop students who are strong in mind, body, character and spirit, and that encourages them to live their lives in service to others.
“We offer many opportunities for students to find their places in our community,” says Jennifer. “Our students aren’t just academics, athletes or artists; they are all of these things, and much more. For example, we have students who are on our robotics team, but who also run cross country. All of our students have the opportunity to explore their interests and engage in different ways of thinking and doing.”
One of the best examples of Pope Prep style in action is an innovative initiative called the Hand-In-Hand Options (HIHO) program. This program was developed to help students with learning challenges succeed in the school environment.
In the HIHO program, each student’s curriculum is personalized to match their individual goals, with instruction delivered through a combination of regular classroom, small group and one-on-one methods. Throughout the program, they are paired with student peer mentors who help them navigate school life.
After finishing the four-year HIHO program, all students receive special certificates of completion. Many of the graduates choose to continue their education at colleges or vocational schools.
“The range of disabilities facing some of our students is broad, but we feel that it is important for them to feel at home within our school community,” says Karen. “All of our HIHO students take inclusion classes with their peers in the arts, social studies, theology and innovation. We want all of our students to be prepared to take on the challenges in their lives.”
Over the years, the HIHO program has achieved significant success, resulting in high levels of student accomplishment that have been noticed by others outside of the school community.
“Last year, one of our HIHO students, Adaline Hamlin, participated in a program to develop a solution to help people in our community,” says Jennifer. “She designed and developed a special lunch tray to keep food from sliding off. After building a prototype, Adaline worked with our school 3D print club to manufacture the finished tray. Subsequently, she was recognized by the Tennessee STEM and Innovation Network for her innovative project.”
Since its founding in 2004, the HIHO program has helped 27 students find their way to success at Pope Prep. For the 2022-23 academic year, the program has 9 students enrolled in grades 9 – 12.
“The HIHO program is not just about helping students with disabilities; it makes all of us better,” says Jennifer. “Our HIHO students are embraced by the other students and the faculty who see them as valuable members of our school community. The peer mentors develop special bonds with the HIHO students, and they learn and grow with each other.”
True to the words and spirit of Maya Angelou, the Pope Prep family doesn’t just survive, it thrives – with passion, compassion and style for all.