Patricia Gatti is a big believer in positive thinking. As the new principal at Immaculate Heart of Mary School in Scarsdale, Gatti's positive approach to her new job will be an asset while she leads the school after a year of internal struggle at the school and the church.
Last year, IHM's controversial priest was removed from his position after parishioners formed a crisis conmlittee and complained to the archdiocese about the former pastor's erratic spending habits and behavior, and his unexplained firings of the head of religious education and other longtime employees.
"There is a renewed spirit here at the school. The angst is gone," said Gatti, who reports to Monsignor John Ferry, the new pastor of IHM Catholic Church.
"Parents and kids have all been great and Monsignor Ferry is a delight to work with. The faculty stayed, which is important for continuity and has kept us on a steady keel, and everyone is cooperative. It's a great pleasure to work here," said Gatti, who worked for 10 years as principal of St. Brendan's in the Bronx.
Gatti said St. Brendan's is an inner city school that used to be filled with Irish families, who over the last 10 years moved to Woodlawn and Pearl River, or back to Ireland. Now the school population is 85 percent Hispanic working poor, and most students are at the school from breakfast at 7:30 a.m. until 6 p.m.
"There was very little parental involvement [at St. Brendan's] and here the wonderful PTA is active and involved, which I appreciate. The more people involved in the children's education, the better," said Gatti.
Gatti said the classes at IHM are much smaller than in the Bronx, where "there are 42 kids in a class and no one blinks an eye."
Gatti was a teacher herself, logging seven years at St. Barnabas Elementary School in the Bronx and 10 years at Our Lady of Victory Academy in Dobbs Ferry before becoming a principal. She holds a B.S. degree in history from Mercy College, and two master's degrees: one in educational administration from lona College and the second in religious studies from the Archdiocesan Catechetical Institute at St. Joseph's Seminary.
"We are happy to have her here," said Ferry, who began as pastor at IHM last March. "She comes with great experience and credentials and we are looking forward to a good year."
Gatti said IHM had an "exodus" of students who left last year.
"We have 194 students total now, nursery to eighth grade, which is down 65 from last year," Gatti said. "Our current seventh grade has just six students. The parents weren't happy last year and began to start looking for other schools in January or February [before Ferry and Gatti began working at IHM]. We have room to grow."
Gatti said that the current pre-K program is full, however, and that there is a demand for a 3s program, which the school has never had before. She is planning to expand both the 3s and the 4s programs beginning in September 2007.
"There are many parents here who asked for a 3s program. It is not uncommon for families here to have three and four children, and they come to drop off their older children and then need to drive to a private nursery school somewhere else to drop off their 3-year-old. This way they will be able to have them all on this campus."
Gatti said beginning in September 2007 the current pre-K will be expanded to an all-day program from just a half-day, and that the 3s program will begin with a morning class. If the morning session of about 20 students fills she will offer an afternoon session as well.
The school is having an open house Wednesday, Oct 25 from 9 until 11 a.m. at IHM School, 201 Boulevard in Scarsdale, and registration information for September 2007 will be available then, Gatti said.
"Monsignor Ferry is very involved," Gatti said of the pastor, whom she reports to directly. "All the children know who he is, and he comes over several times a day. He is very committed to having a school here," Gatti said.
IHM has been a school of Catholic education in Scarsdale fur 80 years, since the Sisters of Charity began it in 1927. The school will celebrate its 80th anniversary next year. Black and white photographs of early classes show graduating eighth-grade classes with their teachers, all nuns and priests. The Sisters of Charity wore black habits with bonnets tied under the chin until the mid-' 60s, when head wear was modified to a more modern wimple, as well as a shorter hemline for the dress skirt. Priests wore elaborate, rounded and tall hats.
Maureen Radesich, an IHM parent, is currently head of the IHM Alumni Association, which is seeking names and addresses of past students for its roster. To date, 450 alumni have been located. Information can be sent directly to Radesich at the school or to the rectory.
Tricia Mihallo, IHM's nurse for the last 10 years, has seen the changes in the church and the school and is happy about the new leadership. "There are fewer students this year but it is a more positive environment. Patricia Gatti has a positive and focused spirit," Mihallo said.
"There was such chaos before," Gatti said, "and now things are back to the way they should be. We start each day together with a prayer over the PA system. In October, we do a decade of the rosary and then always the pledge and then our announcements, so we all start the day together."
A tour around the very clean and very quiet school showed children busy at work at their desks, dressed in the school uniform of plaid skirts and ties and maroon sweaters. Students meet from 8:20 a.m. until 2:40 p.m. and then have a variety of after-school programs ranging from Catholic Youlth Organization basketball, golf, soccer, cheerleading and girl scouting to altar servers, band and choir.
Kindergarten teacher Enis Chiavetta, who has been at IHM for 31 years, said the kindergarteners are split into two sections and the groups meet in two rooms, with one on the second floor, to study reading in smaller groups. Every grade receives religious instruction once a day.
"The fourth graders are preparing for the state tests now," Gatti said. "And we celebrate the saints in October, ending with All Saints' Day, so here is another class watching a video on St. Bernadette."
The school's library, art, and computer rooms were empty because it was lunchtime, but other students were in French class. All IHM students receive French foreign language instruction from kindergarten through eighth grade.
"Those six students in our seventh grade are six students who really want to be here. We blend them in with the eighth grade whenever we can, such as music and art and computer class, and French," Gatti said.
The drama club is well attended, Gatti said, and is putting on a production of the Wizard of Oz this November, one of three productions that are produced each school year with children in grades three to eight. "Our auditorium has excellent sound and lighting. The actors have little mikes," said Gatti.
Religious education classes for public school students are held downstairs on the lower level during weekday afternoons, according to Gatti.
When students graduate at the end of eighth grade, most go on to Catholic high schools, either Fordham Prep, run by the Jesuits, or lona Prep, run by the Christian Brothers. "Most of the girls go to Ursuline, but a few to Sacred Heart or the School of the Holy Child," said Gatti.
"The change in leadership with Monsignor Ferry has directly affected the school in a very good way," Gatti said.
IHM School gets a new principal and a fresh start
The Scarsdale Inquirer; October 20, 2006; By CARRIE GILPIN