Last December, the city of Webster Groves honored Sister Barbara Roche by making Dec. 2 Sister Barbara Roche Day. Roche, Nerinx Hall High School president, celebrated 25 years of work and service at the school with family and friends on that day in 2011.
“That was a lot of fun to have a day named after me,” Roche said.
Roche is set to retire in June 2013 after working at Nerinx for 27 years. Along with working at the school, she also attended Nerinx as a student. After Roche graduated in 1964, she attended Webster College, now Webster University. She received a history and political science degree in 1969, along with a teaching certificate.
Roche soon discovered teaching wasn’t a good fit for her, as she said she was much more comfortable working in an administrative role.
“School had always come easily to me, so it was really a challenge for me … when the students didn’t get it. I couldn’t figure out new and different ways to help them understand whatever it was I was trying to convey,” Roche said.
“… So when this opportunity (to become president) came, it was great because I had always thought working in a school was going to be fun, and to have the opportunity to use some of the skills I had with Nerinx, which I loved.”
During her years spent at Nerinx, Roche said she’s seen many changes occur at the school. The changes included enhancement of technology, new and creative teaching techniques, more program offerings and more engaging lessons. Roche said people have become more aware of students’ different issues and disabilities.
“Now we have more students with diagnosed learning disabilities and our faculty had to learn ways to adapt their teaching so that all the students can learn,” Roche said. “We really want all of our students to be successful.”
Nerinx’s new president
John Gabriel will be taking the position of Nerinx Hall president once Roche retires. Gabriel is currently the principal of Ursuline Academy in New Orleans, which, like Nerinx, is a private, all-girls school.
Roche believes Gabriel will be a good fit for Nerinx because of his background in administration at private high schools. Gabriel hopes to bring a fresh perspective to Nerinx.
“Sister Barbara, who has been there for 27 years, is a legend,” Gabriel said. “And I think (Nerinx is) very happy with where they are. But I also think they have an opportunity to have a fresh set of eyes and new experience or a new set of experiences look at their school and perhaps give them some opportunities for growth also.”
Gabriel said he brings new viewpoints by being a male administrator at an all-girls school. He hopes to continuously graduate successful women from Nerinx.
“One of the things I said to the male faculty when we were talking about this was that all of them probably knew exactly what I was thinking,” Gabriel said. “If they were fathers, they are certainly working for the empowerment of their daughters.”
Nerinx and Webster’s relations
Nerinx and Webster’s history goes back to the early 1920s, Roche said. The two schools used to be one entity, but it soon became uncommon for high schools and universities to be joined.
As a result, Nerinx moved down Garden Avenue to its current location. Since then, Nerinx and Webster have been neighbors. The schools often share facilities when necessary.
Roche said there was a time when Webster used Nerinx’s classrooms to hold evening classes. Webster’s opera program also uses Nerinx’s theater every January for productions. Conversely, Nerinx previously used Webster’s chemistry labs before Nerinx had its own. Nerinx students also use Webster’s art department at times.
Roche said the relationship between the two schools has always been friendly.
“I would say overall we’ve had really good relations with the university,” Roche said. “We try and take advantage of many of the opportunities that we have by being right next door to Webster. … I think it’s just more trying to be good neighbors with each other.”
Roche said she’s been around for at least three of Webster’s master plans. She said the process used to be more of a private matter. But it became more public when the university attempted to clarify issues the city and residents had regarding changes made by the master plan.
Roche said Nerinx has also had conflicts in terms of Webster’s expansion, but the conflicts never worried Nerinx extensively. It was more about finding a benefit for everyone involved.
“The more recent (master plan) is really exciting not just for the university, but for all of us in the neighborhood really,” Roche said. “I know some residents have an issue with it, but anything that develops the university’s campus is a plus for us really. It just is even more prestigious to be located right next door and be able to take advantage of all the offerings there.”
Of her accomplishments at Nerinx, Roche said she was especially proud to be part of the administration that grew enrollment from 500 to more than 600 students and added the theater and new field. She is also proud of the increase in diversity the school encountered in her time there. Student population grew to about 14 percent students of color according to Roche.
Roche also was proud of starting an endowment to give the school financial security and helping students with more financial aid.
“We’ve really grown that program a lot, and especially when the economy started tanking in ‘07, ’08, ’09, our board made a commitment (that) every student who was currently a junior or senior wouldn’t have to leave for financial reasons,” Roche said. “So I was very proud of our being able to do that and (our ability) to help families.”
When people ask her what she plans to do once she retires, Roche said she honestly doesn’t know. She plans to stay in St. Louis and get more involved in the community, but she isn’t sure where or when. First, she just wants to relax.
“I’m hoping to have a little time to relax and recuperate,” Roche said. “I read an article in The New York Times about Hillary Clinton (that) said she was looking to get ‘untired.’ I liked that.”