WILMINGTON – In the summer of 1998, Mark Freund arrived as principal at St. Mark’s High School and immediately began making changes designed to improve the academic, spiritual and extracurricular offerings. That never stops, he said, and will continue when Freund leaves the Diocese of Wilmington for the principal’s position at Pope John Paul II High School in Boca Raton, Fla., starting July 1.
“One of the benefits of working with a good team is that progress doesn’t slow down in spite of who the principal is. But the real work in this building, and the good work, takes place in the classrooms. That’s the core, that’s the mission, that’s the focus,” he said May 21 in his office.
To that end, among the first changes implemented by Freund and his veteran team of administrators was an increase in honors and advanced placement classes. The school also launched the EMMAUS program for students with learning differences “that really has redefined the ability of students with a learning disability to have a great high school experience. Not only a great high school experience, but to be truly prepared when they go to college or a university.”
Much of the non-classroom improvements are related to athletics and came at the urging of the alumni. The school’s football team played its first on-campus game in 1999 or 2000, and lights were added to the field last year. Other fields have been improved or added under his direction.
The building itself remains “fresh” despite its age. According to Freund, the administration has made a commitment to maintaining the physical plant.
“If you walk around the building, it doesn’t look like a 40-plus year-old building,” he said.
The school recently received good news —verbal confirmation of a large grant that will be used to improve the science laboratories, and it is waiting for other grants.
Superintendent of Schools Cathy Weaver said Freund led St. Mark’s through two successful Middle States accreditation processes and the development of a strategic plan. He also placed “a renewed emphasis on Catholic identity through the promotion of the hallmark virtues of faith, excellence, humility and integrity.”
The students were what attracted Freund to St. Mark’s in the first place and remain close to his heart. He said that while “what they strap to their sides” has changed, the young people there are still “phenomenal.”
“I find our kids to be deeply spiritual, and I find them truly ever searching for that piece of their life,” he said. “I find our kids to be intellectually curious. I find our students to be incredibly gifted when it comes to participating in and leading activities. How you get there — whether it’s with text message, or you facilitate a meeting with an instant message or an email, or posting on a blog — that’s changed.
“But at their core, our students are fundamentally incredible witnesses to creation and to God’s role in the world. And we’re thrilled by that here.”
He said the school’s reputation for hospitality is well-founded and fits in with his background in Jesuit education. (He formerly taught at Loyola Blakefield High School in his native Baltimore.) He felt welcomed from his first day on the job.
Freund arrived from the outside, but he believes one of the strengths of St. Mark’s is the number of graduates who are employed at the school, including the director of the physical plant, an assistant principal, the directors of advancement and admissions, as well as many teachers. The average tenure of the teachers is nearly 20 years, which is also a positive.
“They’re a source of incredible stability in the building, and that’s a good thing,” he said.
St. Mark’s future
At Pope John Paul II, Freund will lead a school with an enrollment this year of 504, according to the website of the city of Boca Raton. He said he was looking for new challenges in his career, and the time was right to pursue his next career opportunity.
“I’m sorry to leave, but it’s life. Change is a part of life,” he said.
He will be in his new office July 1 “ready to roll up my sleeves and get to work.” However, his wife, Dale, a teacher in the EMMAUS program at St. Mark’s, will remain at the couple’s home in Cecil County, Md., and “in all likelihood” will be on the faculty next year. The realities of the real-estate market are preventing them from selling the house at this point, he said.
He feels positive about the future of St. Mark’s and said the leadership team has tried to make sure the school is economically viable and remains an attractive option for parents who have more educational choices than ever. To do that, he said, the school has spent money on programs that draw students, and it has invested in alumni and community support.
“The future of St. Mark’s High School … is very bright as far as I can see,” he said.
Weaver said the diocese hopes to name a new principal in June.
Freund is excited about his final graduation, which will be June 2, and feels a mix of trepidation and excitement about his move to Florida. He already has one event planned for next winter, although it’s not an officially sanctioned school activity.
On the first snow day for St. Mark’s, he’s going to take a picture of himself standing in the Atlantic Ocean and email it to his colleagues in Wilmington – except for his wife.