Best in Class
As it approaches its 50th anniversary, Archbishop John Carroll High School in Radnor has an ambitious goal in sight: to be one of the finest Catholic high schools in the nation
by Bill Donahue

The leaders of Archbishop John Carroll High School are committed to excellence in the spiritual, academic and social development of its students. But that’s only the tip of a much larger iceberg. Their goal is to shape this co-educational secondary school in Radnor into “one of the finest Catholic high schools in the nation,” says Frank Fox, president of Archbishop Carroll, and also an alumnus from the class of 1977.

It’s an ambitious goal, Fox can admit, but is it an attainable one? Based on the excitement and passion brewing throughout the school’s beautiful 60-acre campus, as well as on the many initiatives already underway, the answer is simple: absolutely.

“I have found that there is a hunger for the elimination of mediocrity and for a value proposition like ours, all in a warm, Catholic culture at a reasonable price point,” says Fox, who became the first lay president in the school’s 47-year history after a successful business career and long-time service as a member of the Archbishop Carroll advisory board. “There is an absolute demand for that kind of proposition, and up till now that demand has been untapped.

“We’ve used this goal as a rallying point for our five-year strategic plan, Carroll50,” he continues. “It has been several years in the making, and the things we’re doing now, we believe, are what transform a good school into a great school. I think we’re onto something very special here. Becoming one of the best Catholic high schools in the nation doesn’t happen overnight, so we’re working diligently every day to achieve that goal.”

Carroll50 will take Archbishop Carroll into the 2017-2018 school year, coinciding with the school’s 50-year anniversary. The plan is designed to stoke improvements in areas such as academic development, ministry, facilities and enrollment. Although the plan is only into its first year, the school is already reaping the benefits. Success in communicating its value proposition to prospective students and their families has led to a 50 percent increase in enrollment for the freshman class of 2014-2015.

“One of our biggest concerns when we were aggressively attracting this strong freshman class was that we needed to be prepared for them through academic rigor—i.e., the teachers,” Fox says. “We have 17 spectacular new teachers that now mix with a great senior staff, and that gives us a very strong faculty here at Carroll.  The goal was to ensure that our students are being taught by the finest teachers available. I’m confident that our teachers bring the passion and the excitement to create an intellectual challenge for our kids.”

An already rigorous academic program lies at the heart of Archbishop Carroll’s success, according to Joseph L. Denelsbeck, now in his fifth year as principal at the school. The top third of the students taking the SATs earned an average score of 1807, placing the school within the top five in the archdiocese. Archbishop Carroll offers 20 Advanced Placement courses, and approximately 60 percent of students take at least one AP class before graduation.

Fox and Denelsbeck believe the school’s CarrollU initiative will further improve these metrics and better prepare students for college life. CarrollU, which exemplifies “excellence in college preparatory,” includes a partnership with Cabrini College that enables juniors and seniors to earn up to 24 college credits.

Archbishop Carroll has also taken proactive measures to attract the attention of the best colleges and universities in the country. Earlier this year, for example, for the very first time, recruiters from the University of Notre Dame visited Archbishop Carroll’s newly created presentation facilities to meet with prospective students. Several other excellent schools—Princeton University and the University of Pennsylvania among them—are on the docket.

The five-year plan includes a shift to “a more academic style of education,” according to Denelsbeck, with “school within a school” academies that allow students to essentially choose a major and “deep dive” into classes for everything from STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) to the fine arts. Modified lunch periods will enable students to spend an hour studying these core classes, compared with the 44 minutes allotted for standard classes.

To better prepare students for the next phase of their education and beyond, Archbishop Carroll has integrated technology into the classroom. The school is now in its third year of being a “bring your own device”—or BYOD—school, with students able to use personal computing devices such as iPhones, iPads and laptops in class. In addition, each classroom is equipped with a SMART Board, projector and Apple TV, and the completely wireless campus also offers three PC labs and one iLab.

For 2014, the school has invested in new resources, including a piano lab and a dramatic expansion of its art and music departments. Additional investments are on tap in the form of more teachers with specialized training. This will not only further improve the school’s student-to-teacher ratio—the Carroll50 plan calls for a student-to-teacher ratio of 18:1, according to Fox—but also build out of the capabilities of the individual CarrollU academies.

“The community and culture of the school have been singularly unique for 47 years,” says Fox. “I was part of it as a student, then as a board member and now as president. In my 20 years of being involved on the board, I would ask one question to students on a regular basis: ‘How do you like Carroll?’ The answer was always the same: ‘I love it.’ You don’t find that everywhere. The kids that are here want to be here. It’s a place for them to come, take risks and not be judged.

“Our campus, our diversity, our academics and our athletics are all unique to our school,” he continues, “but it’s our students that make Carroll a truly special place; I call them our ‘Secret Sauce.’ We’re providing them with the guidance and the tools to get them to the next step and achieve their dreams. That’s why I wanted to be here.”

Archbishop Carroll has a history of producing exceptional students. Besides Fox, members of the distinguished alumni include Joseph Clancy, the new acting interim director of the U.S. Secret Service; Hank Mulany, president of Toys “R” Us’ U.S. division; Brian Zwaan, president of Penn Liberty Bank; Brian McDonough, M.D., medical editor at KYW NewsRadio; and Maria Bello and Kate Flannery, both of whom are notable stars of stage and screen.

Based on the transformation now well underway at Archbishop Carroll, the number of distinguished alumni will soon multiply.

“Our goal is to be the finest Catholic school in the country,” says Denelsbeck, “and we’re not bashful about that. Ultimately, people need to come see us and find out for themselves. I think they’ll find that we’re no longer the anomaly but a high school to emulate.”

Archbishop John Carroll High School
211 Matson Ford Road
Radnor, PA 19087

Photograph by Alison Dunlap