Ready to Thrive
Long known for its athletic successes, Archbishop Wood High School has earned a reputation for its challenging academic curriculum and welcoming community designed to help students excel
by Bill Donahue

Conor Sears has wrung a lot of experience out of four years of high school. At Archbishop Wood High School, a Catholic coeducational high school in Warminster now in its 51st year, he has immersed himself in a host of extracurricular activities, from athletics and the performing arts to mock trial and student government, in an effort to broaden his perspective beyond academics. He expects the final months of his senior year to be bittersweet—sad to see his days at Wood come to an end but excited to embrace the next chapter of his life.

“I don’t know if I would be as happy at another school,” says Sears, who leads Wood’s student council as president. “I think what I’m doing here has prepared me for college. I’ve taken some challenging classes this year. I’ve spoken with some freshmen and sophomores in college and told them about these kinds of classes, and they say they wish they had what I’m doing now.”

This includes a robust STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) program—now in its third year at Wood—rooted in project-based learning. Sears characterizes the engineering class he is taking this year as one of the highlights of his academic career.

“We’re doing these interesting engineering projects,” he says, referencing one project in which each student constructed a model of a working, aesthetically pleasing bridge. “You’re learning how to build things, but at the same time it’s also teaching you how to give presentations, because you have to be able to present subjects like this. It’s a lot of fun and you have a lot of freedom. I always thought about going into engineering, and I’ve been even more interested in it after taking this class.”

Although the astounding success of Wood’s athletic teams—Wood’s Vikings have won three state football championships since 2011, for example, while several other of its athletic teams won Philadelphia Catholic League titles in 2014-2015—has made plenty of headlines in recent years, the school has much more to its credit than trophies in a display case. A challenging college-preparatory curriculum and welcoming culture help students thrive, now and into the future, whether they are destined for an Ivy League university, the working world or some other calling.

Recent Wood graduates have been accepted into prestigious institutions of higher education such as Harvard University and the University of Notre Dame, while others have gone on to the U.S. Air Force Academy and the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. The Class of 2015, which had two National Merit Finalists and two National Merit Commended Students, received nearly $30 million in scholarships and grants, according to Gary V. Zimmaro Sr., president of Archbishop Wood.

“My goal is to continue to renovate this facility,” says Zimmaro, noting some of Wood’s recent improvements to the physical plant, including fully renovated “hotel worthy” restrooms and the creation of a brand new Learning Commons, complete with a café. “I believe we are on the right track in every direction. Aside from creating a safe environment for students to learn, what we’re looking to do here is create people of integrity. We want our students to be young men and women of good character and citizenship, and we believe it starts here.”

Above all, the school strives to graduate students who are well-prepared, actively engaged learners who are eager to help others.

“When you’re reading about Wood on the front page of the paper, it’s usually about our championship teams,” adds Principal Mary Harkins, who has been working in education for 46 years. “We certainly appreciate our teams’ successes, but we tell all our students, ‘You have to do your best with the gifts God has given you.’ For a lot of students, that translates into charity within the community, and I think that’s really admirable.”

She references students’ support of events such as the second annual mini-THON. Held in March 2015, the mini-THON raised more than $50,000 to fund research in the battle against pediatric cancer.

“We want our students to enjoy their life here, but we also want them to be prepared to move on comfortably and successfully,” she says. “This is the strongest school academically that I’ve been in, and while it’s important for them to receive the education they need to do well wherever they go next, it’s also important for them to be surrounded by good people. That’s certainly the case here; it’s amazing how they come forward for each other in times of distress.”

Sears knows this better than most. Last year his family suffered a major tragedy—the death of his father following a prolonged illness—and the “love and support” he received from his classmates, teachers and other members of the Wood family overwhelmed him. “It’s really what got me through it,” he says.

For Sears’ classmate Conor McGrath, this sense of community was immediately apparent when he visited Wood as an eighth grader vetting local high schools. “I realized that people don’t leave you behind here,” he says. “Even though I was still in eighth grade, they made me feel like part of a big community. The kids rally around each other.”

McGrath, like Sears, has made the most of his time at Wood. He serves as president of the National Honor Society, captain of the track team and vice president of the student council. He’s also taking five Advanced Placement classes this year to better prepare him for college, where he expects to major in actuarial science.

“As a high school student taking classes in a college setting, you have the opportunity to lead discussions, and that makes you feel like you’re ready when you get to the next level,” says McGrath, whose list of “reach” schools includes Notre Dame. “Besides academics, I think Wood helps you prepare for relationships with other people. You can go up to a teacher and recommend something you want to change or an interest you want to pursue. You can offer opinions and advice, and people take you seriously.”

As an example, earlier this year McGrath took the initiative to help the school host two events that added value to the school and the community: a “Salute the Troops” event before a Wood football game; and a speaking engagement in which Ryan Manion Borek, president of the nonprofit Travis Manion Foundation, was invited to speak to the student body as part of the foundation’s “Character Does Matter” program. Similarly, Sears sought to host a movie night at the school in advance of the release of the latest “Star Wars” film. With the school’s approval, he was able to hold a special screening of “Star Wars: A New Hope,” and approximately 50 people attended.

“I think the events we have here are what I am going to miss most—the proms, the dances, the pep rallies,” says Sears. “The community here is an open and supportive one, and I think it’s like that because of the people at the school, the students. … I think that’s what makes this place so unique.”

Archbishop Wood High School
655 York Road
Warminster, PA 18974

Photograph by Allure West Studios