A lifetime ago, when Tom McInerney was a sophomore at St. Augustine High School in Brooklyn, his world history teacher, Mr. Hitti, took him aside for the kind of talk teenagers would rather avoid.
Mr. Hitti didn’t mince his words. He told Tom that he was “way underperforming” and had to do something about it … fast.
“He really made an impression on me,” Tom recalled, “And I often think back to that conversation, which I still remember after 60 years.”
It was one event that changed the course of a teenage boy’s life. One event he remembered through his senior executive positions in the business world. And one event among others that inspired him to become a lifelong supporter of Catholic education.
Tom and his wife Paula recently gave a $5.5 million gift to Foundations in Education, which Bishop Frank J. Caggiano says will “transform the paradigm of Catholic education in the Diocese of Bridgeport.”
The gift will finance a Personalized Learning Initiative (see article on page 27) that will be launched this fall with pilot programs at six schools, and eventually rolled out at all Catholic elementary schools over the next three years.
“These programs will serve as the foundational cornerstone for the transformation of our schools and support our mission as we seek to form hearts in faith, inform minds in truth and transform the lives of young people so that they will live as missionary disciples of our Lord,” Bishop Caggiano said.
Dr. Steven Cheeseman, Superintendent of Catholic Schools, said, “This is an historic moment for the Catholic schools of the diocese. We are reimagining what the Catholic school classroom can look like and we are excited about what the future holds for our schools and our students.”
Tom McInerney, who is chair of Foundations in Education and CEO and co-founder of Bluff Point Associates, a private equity firm based in Westport, recently attended the introductory session for the initiative.
“It’s relatively easy to write out a check,” he said. “What they’re doing is the hard work. They’re going to have to learn new things. Some will be frightened, others will be energized by it, but they have to do the heavy lifting because they’re the people in the front lines when it comes to providing good Catholic education—the principals and teachers who are in the classroom every day. I cannot exaggerate the importance of what they do. What I do is helpful, but it is only giving them ammunition to fight the wars.”
The Personalized Learning Initiative will provide an updated technology infrastructure, new hardware and student devices and programs to support the traditional Catholic school educational experience, Cheeseman said. The technology will not only improve academic performance among students but also increase their self-confidence and give them lifetime learning skills.
Tom McInerney, who is a product of lifelong Catholic education, attended Holy Cross Elementary School and St. Augustine’s High School in Brooklyn, followed by Cathedral College, a junior seminary, and later St. John’s University, where he received a degree in English literature and served on the board of trustees for 13 years, five as chairman. He also attended New York University Stern School of Business and received an honorary doctorate of commercial science from St. John’s.
“I am absolutely convinced that the years I spent in elementary school and high school and, to a slightly less extent college because I was going at night, were very formative,” he said. “You learned about right and wrong and about your religion and the tenets of the Catholic faith. As part of that process, you also learned about integrity and morality, and the importance of dealing with people on a fair basis.”
They were lessons that stayed with him throughout his life, he said, and values that he brought with him into his professional life and the business world.
Occasionally, he would tease some of his junior colleagues at a firm where he worked. “I used to tell them that just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should do it. There are rights and wrongs, and you have to be conscious of what they are.”
Paula shares his commitment to Catholic education. Before moving to Connecticut, they made a $3 million pledge to convert 29 Catholic elementary schools in the Archdiocese of New York from a traditional educational model to blended learning by providing computers, iPads and software so that teachers could monitor student progress and review it at the end of the day.
As Tom says, “This is not your grandfather’s classroom anymore. Students get to pursue the subject matter at their own pace. It is a much more decentralized, individual approach to education. I’ve seen it in action and I’ve spoken to teachers, students and parents. Everyone is glowing in their praise of this new approach. I’m a convert.”
When they lived in Manhattan, they were also patrons of Catholic schools through the Inner City Scholarship Fund. Paula had two schools and Tom had two, including St. James on the Lower East Side, which claimed Catholic presidential candidate Al Smith as a graduate, and St. Gregory the Great on the Upper West Side.
Prior to Bluff Point, Tom was a general partner of Welsh, Carson, Anderson & Stowe for 24 years, was president and CEO of Momentum Technologies, and a group vice president of Automatic Data Processing’s (ADP) Brokerage Services Division and a group Vice President of ADP’s Financial Industries Services. He also co-founded and served as CEO of Dama Telecommunications Corp. He began his career at the American Stock Exchange. He and Paula have five children and 13 grandchildren.
“From the point of faith and religious beliefs, going to a Catholic school molds a kid with the right kind of thinking about his or her role in life and how to behave and to do the right thing,” he said. “But there’s another element—if you give a good kid a good education, you end up vastly improving that person’s chances to have a good life. With Catholic education, the most important thing is the development of morality, ethics and faith. But it also has the material benefit of creating an environment where a student can break the cycle of poverty.”
The six pilot schools where the Personalized Learning Initiative will be unveiled are Assumption School in Fairfield, St. Gregory the Great in Danbury, Holy Trinity Catholic Academy in Shelton, the Upper School at the Catholic Academy in Stamford, Our Lady of Fatima in Wilton and the new multi-age school, St. Joseph Catholic Academy in Brookfield.
“To survive and prosper, we have to provide an education at least as good as and ideally better than the public schools,” he says. “It has to be an excellent education. And I think individual learning is a clear improvement on educational methodology.”
(Foundations in Education is a non-profit initiative created to assist the Diocese of Bridgeport’s ongoing mission to support Catholic education in Fairfield County. For more information, contact Executive Director Holly Doherty-Lemoine: firstname.lastname@example.org or visit foundationsineducation.org.)