Outstanding Private Middle School
Bertie Wooster would be right at home at St. Bernard’s, a red brick building on East 98th Street between Madison and Fifth avenues. Founded in 1904 by an Englishman, St. Bernard’s is steeped in idiosyncratic English school traditions. Cozy, but not cloying, academically rigorous, yet filled with fun, the school uses structure and warmth to help middle school boys meet their fullest potential.
Step through the inner bright red doors and you will find a coat of arms with the motto “Perge sed caute” (Proceed with caution) above a wooden bench cushioned in dark green leather. Press on into the light-filled atrium and your eyes are drawn up to a stanza from the “Old Boys’ Song” painted in bold, red letters:
Sing we a song of our first Alma Mater, Home of our tenderest triumphs and fears; Little the earth has to offer hereafter Can equal the hopes of those earliest years.
While craning your neck to read these words, you may bump into a bronze, life-size St. Bernard with a barrel under his chin or a row of small boys filing out of a classroom in white smocks. The loyal St. Bernard—a potentially unruly breed, unless properly socialized early in life—is the perfect mascot for a school where the boys are known to be gentlemen both on and off the field. The school was named not for a dog, however, but for a street, in Belgium, where co-founder John C. Jenkins’ father operated a school.
Quirky traditions lead parents, teachers and administrators to use words like “cozy,” “family-like” and “warm” when describing this school. “We delight in our kookiness,” said middle school head, John Demeny. “You won’t find school songs like ours anywhere.”
The 7th and 8th graders begin each day with a hymn in the lovely David Kingwood Teaching Theater, named after a legendary schoolmaster. (The school is non-denominational but uses hymns at assembly.) The walls in the theater are lined with dark blue flags with the names of Shakespeare plays that have been performed over the years. From their seats on the blond auditorium benches, the boys hear recitations every morning—for example, a Shel Silverstein poem or Kipling’s If—performed by fellow students.
Kimberly Putzer, head of the Parent’s Association, is the mother of two boys at this K-9 independent school, one in 1st grade and one in 6th grade. At St. Bernard’s, she feels her sons can participate in activities “like singing and crafts, in addition to carpentry, math club, and robotics,” that, in a co-ed school, “might fall to the girls.” She’s also pleased that her 6th grader is studying Latin, geography and history and has learned to play the recorder. Putzer said the school helps him stay organized. The boys are given planners and taught to fill them in, providing structure with independence.
“Organization is key,” she said. “If you know how to study, that’s half the battle.”
She also likes the school’s emphasis on public speaking and writing.
Beginning in November, the whole school gathers in the small gym for Friday Assembly. Each class performs at one of these assemblies during the year. Performances run the gamut, from Charlie and the Chocolate
Factory to biblical tales. A highlight, according to Demeny, is the lampooning of their masters by the 8th grade class at the end of the year. Eighth graders also take a final, bonding trip; in recent years they’ve gone to Ecuador and Alaska. And they perform a full-length Shakespeare play in December. “Petruccio is one busy guy,” Demeny said, pointing to the ambitious memorization schedule for The Taming of the Shrew, this year’s play.
Sports are big at St. Bernard’s. All the boys have gym four times a week in one of the school’s three gymnasiums. And in a specially appointed room on the top floor—lined with black-and-white fencing helmets—they learn the rudiments of swordplay. After the “Sports Report” during the Friday Assembly, everyone claps whether teams won or lost. In addition to multiple gyms and assembly rooms, the school is equipped with spacious computer and science labs, and the class sizes are relatively small; there are two sections of approximately 20 boys each in grades 5 to 8.
“It’s really a work hard, play hard kind of place,” said 5th grade teacher Matthew Clavel. “A fun place to go to school.”
The school’s kooky sense of fun can be seen everywhere from the extensive Pez candy dispenser collection in Demeny’s office to the stuffed alligator awarded weekly to the class with the neatest room. But structure and unity are inherent in the well-ordered physical space, from the gleaming wood floors to the use of exclusively red pushpins on the uncluttered bulletin boards. Continuity is provided by the respected and loyal staff, many of whom have been at St. Bernard’s for decades and some of whom have taught there into their 80s. David Kingwood was 87 years old when he retired.
Rosemary Lea is 81. Originally from Worchestershire, in central England, Miss Lea taught 1st grade for many years and currently works in admissions. She’s known for her retelling of Bible stories and has published a book, Miss Lea’s Bible Stories for Children.
“A school is only as great as the people who run it,” Putzer said. “They welcome each person to be an individual.”
“We continue to mind one another’s business, to open proudly the doors of our classrooms and show visitors our boys and teachers at their boisterous, messy, hilarious work,” wrote current headmaster Stuart H. Johnson III in his introductory letter on the St. Bernard’s website. Graduates move on to other elite private schools in the city, or to boarding schools in New England, but alum keep in touch “to an extraordinary degree,” said Demeny. Approximately 150 show up in January for the Old Boys’ dinner. Not surprising, given the warmth that exudes from the place of their “tenderest triumphs and fears.”
St. Bernard’s Middle School
4 E. 98th St.
New York, N.Y. 10029
Stuart H. Johnson III, Headmaster
John Demeny, Middle School Head
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