Volume 76, Number 17 | September 13 - 19, 2006

Back to School

Villager photo by Elisabeth Robert

Dr. Stephen Noerper, principal of Old St. Patrick’s School

New principal is driven to ‘make the world better’

By Albert Amateau

Dr. Stephen Noerper, the new principal of Old St. Patrick’s elementary school, brings a world of education experience and an enthusiasm for the parish’s Lower East Side neighborhood where he moved to last year.

He came to the school on Mott St. at the behest of Reverend Thomas Kallumady, pastor of the church where Noerper had been volunteering since he moved to the neighborhood.

“I asked Father Thomas what he really wanted me to do in the parish and he said if I didn’t mind taking a big pay cut, I ought to replace Maureen Burgio, who retired last May after more than 30 years as principal,” he said in an interview last week.

“I left a six-figure job in Midtown — at the Institute of International Education across from the U.N. — to get back to my roots. I’m a teacher by training,” he added.

A teacher he is, as well as a professor at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs at the Woolworth Building in Lower Manhattan. Formerly an analyst at the U.S. State Department, he also taught in Mongolia, where he met his wife and where he ran a center for 4,000 students in Ulan Bator, the capital.

It’s a full résumé for the 40-year-old principal of a little parochial school with 139 students in grades K-8.

But being surrounded by young children is not something new for Noerper.

“I was raised in a family of 10 children, eight of whom were adopted. They were all younger than me, so I had plenty of childcare experience,” he said.

His father, Norman Noerper, a professor at the University of Northeast Illinois in Chicago, was an early Peace Corps volunteer in the 1960s. Noerper’s father and mother, Susan, a registered nurse, adopted eight children from all over the world, many with special needs.

“My brother Dan and I had brothers and sisters who are black, white and Asian — they range in ages now from 18 to 29. All but one of us became teachers,” Noerper said. “Our youngest, Jennifer, has just started DePaul University,” he added.

Noerper went to Holy Cross elementary school and Loyola College, a high school in Chicago, and then to Loyola University in the same city.

“I went to school in Chicago partly to help raise the family,” he said of his brothers and sisters.

After graduation, he traveled in Spain and then volunteered for disaster relief in Peru. He returned to go to graduate school in Massachusetts, studying at Harvard and Tufts in a joint master’s and Ph.D. program, and then went to Mongolia. He returned to corporate and government work and most recently to the Institute for International Education.

The school on Mott St., the city’s first Catholic school, founded in 1822, and the parish church, former seat of the Catholic Diocese of New York, are in the process of adapting to changing neighborhood demographics and a changing post-9/11 world, Noerper observed.

“People ask me if teaching graduate students — with an average age of 35 — in the evening at N.Y.U and being with kids during the day isn’t terribly incongruent,” he said. “But I don’t think it is. Don’t we all have an obligation to try to make the world better? I think we can do that through education.”

At Old St. Pat’s, Noerper is working to involve local businesses and institutions, including N.Y.U., in contributing resources to foster academic excellence and increase enrollment.

“We hope to reach 200 students next year,” he said.

Although the Catholic Archdiocese of New York has been closing many parochial schools in Lower Manhattan with enrollments of 140 students or less, there is a commitment to maintaining Old St. Pat’s because of its history as the cathedral school founded by St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, Noerper said.

The school, where tuition for grades 1-8 is $3,300 and for kindergarten $4,400, is among the most affordable nonpublic schools in Manhattan.

“Still, parents are making a big commitment to the school with a large part of their incomes. So we run a very tight operation,” Noerper said.

“We think of the school in terms of the neighborhood’s immigrant experience. Martin Scorsese was an alumnus. Robert DeNiro played in these streets. Now there are Latino, Asian-American and African-American students. Young professional families have moved here and we’re trying to harness their creativity,” Noerper said.

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