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New principal Tom Fertal plans to build on vision for Saint Mark’s High School in Wilmington

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Principal Tom Fertal adresses students. Saint Mark’s High School hosted its 50th anniversary opening school liturgy on Sept. 6. Dialog photo/Joseph P. Owens

MILLTOWN – Tom Fertal arrived as Saint Mark’s High School’s new principal over the summer, but his office has a barely lived-in look.

That is a sign of his approach, which has him out of the administrative suite more than in it.

A relay race, water balloon toss and several other activities were part of “First Day of SMHS Party” Sept. 30 at Saint Mark’s High School marking the first day of school when it opened 50 years ago. Principal Tom Fertal found himself in the middle of the water baloon toss. Dialog photo/Mike Lang

Fertal returned to Catholic education after a stint at a private Catholic foundation, where he worked in advancement and speaking. Prior to that, he was president of Cardinal O’Hara High School in Springfield, Pa., for three years, and for 15 years, he served at Lancaster Catholic High School as campus minister, dean of students, assistant principal and principal.

“I think all of that lends itself perfectly to what’s needed here at Saint Mark’s,” he said.

Since his arrival, Fertal has been busy spreading the good news about the school, as well as overseeing its academic aspects. He had an idea of what he wanted in a school for his return to administration, and he found a willing audience in the Saint Mark’s community and the diocese.

Catholic schools used to serve more than five million students, a number that is now below two million. As enrollment has shrunk, many institutions have relied on the same marketing and recruitment techniques used in the past. Doing the same things, but with more intensity, does not work, according to Fertal, and the search committee agreed.

“I wanted a system and a school that understood the challenges that are out there in Catholic education. But that’s only the first part,” he said. “But then express the willingness to look in new directions and go in different directions.”

Fertal has hired a new admissions director, Rob DeMasi, a 2009 Saint Mark’s graduate, and has been out in the community, meeting with alumni groups and businesses, and he has spoken to parents and students.

Saint Mark’s had several factors that attracted him. One was the building itself. It is in good condition, so he doesn’t worry about having to spend his energy on the physical plant. He loves the sprawling campus and sees opportunities when he looks around the property. He also found that the students, parents and alumni have a real affinity for the school.

Thomas S. Fertal

“It is very deep here, and that’s an important part, that they’re vested in the school,” he said.

He is also impressed with the leadership the students show.
“I’ve been very impressed – and I’m not impressed easily – the student council program here, I think it’s one of the signature programs. I believe in student leadership. The students here aren’t just allowed to be leaders, but they’re prepared to be leaders. They make real decisions,” he said.

He is well aware of the struggle Saint Mark’s has had with enrollment, but he believes they will have a “phenomenal” year in admissions. He hired DeMasi as admissions director, and they have been out and about meeting with elementary schools, businesses, alumni groups and others. A recent open house attracted nearly 1,000 eighth-graders, which was encouraging.

The current enrollment is 501 as of early October, and Fertal said 600 is a good number to start. Parents want a small-school feel, which he says Saint Mark’s can provide even if the number of students is up to 800. He has no plans to cap enrollment for next year’s freshman class.

Fertal drives to Wilmington each day from Lancaster County, where he lives with his wife, Patricia, and five of their six children – three girls and three boys. They range in age from 12-22. They like to spend time outdoors, camping, hiking and fishing. He plays the guitar, and has been known to do a show in a pub once in a while. He is also a sometimes runner.

Tom Fertal and administrators and students at Saint Mark’s High School prepare to announce a scholarship winner at open house.

He is a product of Catholic education through high school before majoring in criminal justice at Penn State University. After a stint in the Army, he was working as a youth minister and started taking theology classes and got into campus ministry and education.

He said he is not one to come in and spend a year observing, so he wanted to hit the ground running at Saint Mark’s. Having the team at the school on board is making the transition smooth.

“If you build the right team, if you create the right culture, if you establish trust in the community, then you can make changes, and people will say, ‘We’re willing to follow because we’ve seen so far that we trust the leaders.’ And that’s important. You’ve got to have that rapport. You’ve got to build that trust.”

“I can’t do it alone. It’s not a one-man show,” he said.

“When I talk to alums, I tell them. I feel it in my body and my soul. I can see it happening. There’s a bright future here, an extraordinarily bright future at Saint Mark’s, and I’m thrilled to be a part of it.”

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