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Many Changes as Donahue Academy Begins Its 10th Year

chrissmith200The building looks the same, but the Donahue Academy of Ave Maria has a significantly revamped lineup of people working inside it.

The change begins at the top. Chris Smith (right), who has 20 years of experience as a school administrator and teacher, is the fourth headmaster in as many years at the k-12 Catholic school in Ave Maria. Mr. Smith, who said he interviewed for the job just a month before arriving in Ave Maria from Jackson, Mich., with his wife and five children, said he's excited to be at Donahue and understands he faces a number of challenges.

The Donahue community was roiled in the spring when three popular staff members were fired and former headmaster Mark Jahnke – after first receiving a vote of confidence from the board of directors – was reassigned to teaching duties. Tyler Graham, who served as academic dean last year, is also returning to the classroom this year. One of the fired staff members, Janet Deliso, was later hired back as the school's athletic director.

A number of other faculty left for other reasons over the summer so about half the faculty on hand for Tuesday's beginning of the school year were not in Donahue classrooms last year. Enrollment, which had been steadily rising since the school opened its doors in August, 2007, has declined as well. Mr. Smith said it is about 260 students this year, down from about 280 the previous year.

And three of the school's five directors are also facing a lawsuit by a former member of the board who says they have a conflict of interest because they also serve on the Ave Maria University board, and alleges financial improprieties.

Mr. Smith recognizes the challenges he faces.

"A top priority is earning people's trust as the new guy and provide transparency in what I'm doing," he said in an interview.

"The school needs stability. It needs systems. It needs organization."

The board of directors was heavily involved in management decisions when Mr. Jahnke was headmaster but Mr. Smith said he expects to have a free hand to direct the school's operations. "I had a conversation with the board and think I'll be able to manage as I see fit," he said. "I have to trust that they meant it when they told me I'll be able to run the school the way I want to."

Ave Maria resident Chelsea Allan was one of the parents who met Mr. Smith at his first meeting with parents after assuming the reins at Donahue. "He is very personable, energetic, confident, and seems to have a good handle on the work cut out for him," said Mrs. Allan, who began sending her children to Donahue in 2008, has seen two of her children graduate, and has five enrolled there now.

"Even with all the changes in faculty and administration throughout the years, Donahue Academy remains unique among American Catholic schools. Very few Catholic schools offer daily Mass, regular confession, have a core group of teaching sisters in full habit, still teach phonics as well as Latin and rhetoric, and model virtue-centered formation."

"I am very grateful to be here," Mr. Smith said. "There are so many good people and I think we all want the same thing. It's just a question of getting on the same page." 

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