“We are family.”
That’s the phrase David Carapella uses to describe Siena Catholic Academy, the Catholic middle school located on the campus of St. Thomas More Parish on East Avenue in Brighton.
Carapella, who in July wrapped up his first year as principal at Siena, said the school provides a safe and supportive environment for students navigating their way through their transformative middle-school years. He said this has always been the mission of Siena, which celebrated its 25th anniversary June 15 with a festival on the school grounds.
This mission is important because the middle-school years often may be fraught with awkwardness and turmoil as students transition from childhood to the teenage years, Carapella said.
“It’s a tough time, but developmentally we know how kids run and work, so we focus all of our energies on that, and on being supportive to them,” he explained.
Families considering sending their children to Siena frequently ask Carapella why they should send their children to the school rather than to a public middle school or even one to one of the middle schools operated by the four large Catholic high schools in the area.
“Those schools are great, and I have nothing negative to say. However, if your child is going into sixth grade, that’s a huge transition from elementary school,” Carapella said. “If they’re going to one of the high schools that are from sixth to 12th grade, they’re looking at some pretty big kids there, older kids. Here we really focus on the 11- to 14-year-old child. It’s a little bit easier in terms of transition.”
Siena is the only stand-alone, coeducational, diocesan-sponsored middle school in Monroe County, and it is a valuable part of the local Catholic school system, according to Anthony S. Cook III, superintendent of the Diocese of Rochester’s Catholic schools.
“Those kids are in one of the most important times of their life in terms of growth,” Cook said. “I think Siena just gives an opportunity for students to grow during their early maturing stages with kids that are their age.”
Carapella said students also benefit from the relatively small size of Siena, which last year educated 192 students in its three grades.
“Because of our size, one of the benefits of that is that we get to know each other very well: staff to staff, staff to student, student to student. It’s very difficult to fall through the cracks here,” he remarked.
The school’s small size also allows it to provide students with leadership opportunities they might not experience at a larger school, Cook said. Since the student body is smaller, that means a greater percentage of it will be able to participate in the school musical, for example, noted Rebecca Williams, business manager for the diocesan Department of Catholic Schools.
“They get to play different sports on middle-school teams because they’re not being cut like they (might be) at another school,” Williams said.
Along with its variety of sports teams, Siena also boasts a number of enrichment activities, such as a robotics and yearbook clubs, she said. Sixth-graders “get a taste” of Latin, Spanish and French so they can decide which language they’d like to take the next year, and business administration and different types of music classes are available alongside the more traditional course offerings, Williams added.
Siena’s students performed well in 2018 state tests measuring their proficiency in both math and language arts, but Carapella said that while academics are a major focus at Siena, they are not the school’s only focus.
“We lead with heart here, and that’s what it’s all about. To me, what’s just as important, if not more important, is what’s inside and what our kids become and how they treat one another and do for others,” he said.
The fruits of this approach are evident, according to Anne Schreiber. Her daughter, Mary Grace, graduated from Siena’s eighth grade in June, and her son, William, will be an eighth-grader there this year.
“Academically, emotionally and socially our daughter is well-prepared for high school. She learned to navigate through middle school, as is my son, in a safe and supportive environment. I would say that Siena is a place where you can feel confident to send your child,” Schreiber said.