SLU program's first grads praise Catholic aspect

When Brock Kesterson, dean of students, walked into St. Louis University High School recently, he was surprised when students and others addressed him as "doctor."

"That was more than I ever anticipated or expected. It's been really nice, the students have been great, everyone has been supportive and congratulatory," Kesterson said about word that he completed work on his doctorate and would be getting his degree. "I'm not used to it yet, either. People say it, and I go, 'Oh, I guess, all right, yeah.'"

Kesterson's group of four Catholic educators defended their projects April 28 and wrapped up a few things before their May 15 graduation. Another group of three also is part of the first set of graduates to have completed a doctoral program at St. Louis University tailored to Catholic education.

SLU has offered a master's degree in Catholic school leadership since the early 1980s and began a similar program for doctoral students in 2010. It is one of three Catholic universities in the country with such a program.

Seven students in the Catholic doctoral program finished coursework and their doctoral projects, including a team effort. The program enrolls about 20 teachers, administrators, campus ministers and others connected with Catholic education.

Kesterson would not have considered another doctoral program. "I'm finishing my 15th year at SLU High. I've been through Catholic grade school, high school and college, and it's what I know and want to be a part of," he said.

Public education is fine, he said, but he never thought about pursuing further education because he felt it didn't fit with his vocation in Catholic schools. When SLU's program opened up, "that to me was a no-brainer," he said.

Everyone in the program has a Catholic background and is interested in furthering that experience. "That camaraderie, collaboration and experiences that we bring and bounce off each other was an important piece of the program," Kesterson said.

The Church teaching that was discussed made it authentically Catholic and applicable to the students' lives and schools, he said.

John James, an assistant professor at SLU, directs SLU's Catholic Leadership Programs, which now includes both master's and doctoral programs offered through the university's Department of Educational Leadership and Higher Education. He was instrumental in establishing the doctoral program. His passion about Catholic education "helped fuel our passion as well," Kesterson said.

Meghan Bohac, principal of St. Stephen Protomartyr School in south St. Louis, said the doctoral students range from classroom teachers to presidents of schools, racially and geographically diverse. Her group, which included Kesterson, John Freitag of St. Peter School in Kirkwood and Todd Guidry of Chaminade College Preparatory, wrote a paper on Catholic identity.

The other group of graduates included Molly Grumich of Incarnate Word Academy, Dan Karcher of Chaminade and Carissa Hess, formerly of Ursuline Academy. They wrote a paper on the president-principal model of leadership.

Bohac, who received a master's degree from William Woods University, said having the Catholic angle was intriguing "because, while a lot of things in public education pertain to us, it's a totally different avenue of education."

Karcher, head of the English program at Chaminade, said the Catholic school focus made the program more rewarding. The idea of the cohort -- everyone adding contributions and perspectives -- especially widened his perspective, he said. "We talk about the idea of Catholic school leadership, seeing it to the next level with the increased role of the laity, so here's a group not just interested but willing to gather the educational background to bring that leadership to fruition," Karcher said.

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