A Year in Leadership at Xavier High

The first female headmaster of the Jesuit school reflects on faith and learning

| 01 Apr 2022 | 04:57

Kim Smith’s days are full.

“One of the things I started doing my first week, and I’ve kept it up, I greet the boys when they come in the morning,” said the new headmaster at Xavier High School. “It really is the highlight of my day.”

As Xavier, the Jesuit school for boys in Chelsea, celebrates its 175th year, Smith celebrates her first year, come July, as headmaster at the established Catholic institution. The first female headmaster.

Gracious in her response regarding this historic appointment, Smith acknowledges that it is an important first, and she is really glad that her hard work was recognized, but thinks what is most important “is that this institution is looking for the kind of excellence I am here to facilitate.”

Xavier’s president, Jack Raslowsky, said much the same almost a year ago when the announcement of her selection after a nation-wide search was first made public. “Kim Smith brings a deep understanding of Jesuit education and a real commitment to academic excellence,” he said.

This excellence is grounded in her commitment to living the Catholic faith she so deeply believes in, and her more than 20 years as an educator and administrator in Jesuit high school education. Most recently, Smith served as a vice principal at all-boys Boston College High School in Boston, before moving to New York City for her new position as Xavier’s 55th headmaster.

“A Finger on the Pulse”

Smith tries to get to her greeting position early – between 6:30 and 6:45 most mornings, she says (the school doors open at 7 with the first class starting at 8:10 am) where some of the students will stop to talk for a bit. She gets to hear what they are reading as some of them still have a book in their hand from reading on the subway, “some of them will tell me what sports teams they’re on, they’ll have a lacrosse stick in their hand, a baseball hat on, it’s a good contact point and it let’s me kind of get a finger on the pulse,” of how they are doing, she said.

Throughout the remainder of the day, in addition to a hectic office schedule, Smith visits classes and observes teachers officially as part of her role. And when she can she says she likes to pop in the hallways and interact with students and teachers as they move about the building.

“It’s a gift to remember what our work is here,” Smith said. “It is to help these young men engage in the world. So, when I get to go into classes, sometimes I’m paying attention to calculus, sometimes I’m learning to conjugate verbs in Latin (Latin!) or Spanish or Italian or French.”

“You walk into these places, and you remember what we’re asking them to do is really challenging and interesting,” she continued. “It’s an absolute gift.”

Personal Faith

Speaking passionately about her personal faith and the Biblical concept of “praying without ceasing,” Smith said, “Everything we do is a prayer. It’s good to remember that every moment of my life is a form of prayer – it’s a form of asking of God, of worship of God, of recognition of God.”

“And I think the job for us as a Catholic institution is to remind the boys of their prayer, [that] their life is a prayer,” she said.

The school’s campus ministry plays a big part in encouraging the students to live out the Catholic tradition.

“Every morning, the whole community – we stop, we pray, we say the Pledge of Allegiance, then we start our day,” she said. Adding that Mass is also offered everyday and it’s good to see some students show up without being asked because she doesn’t know what’s pulling them there, but she is glad that this stable form of prayer is available if they need it.

Regarding students who are not Catholic, she said all are welcomed to pray in their own way and students are supported in their faith life, explaining that Catholicism is offered to everyone, but not forced.

Smith speaks very highly of the whole community at Xavier. “The faculty and staff here are incredibly dedicated, they care so much about our students’ well-being and success,” she said. “It’s inspiring to bear witness to their commitment and care.” Adding that they have also been very welcoming to her.

“I think to be a leader, people have to be willing to let you lead, and I’ve found that willingness here,” she said.

Respectful Students

Of the students, she says her being a female headmaster is not a big deal to the students as “this is what they know now.” And that, by nature, by family, and the school’s expectations, they are incredibly respectful.

“So, them being open to a female headmaster is not surprising to me,” Smith said. “I haven’t sensed any resistance. They’re much more interested in their learning.”

Smith spoke proudly of Xavier’s “excellent senior class” where some young men have been accepted into the various service academies and other colleges of their choice. She finds this especially heartening for this graduating class that has been through so much with the pandemic, she said.

Living in New York City is another first for Kim Smith, one she is still very excited about and not dampened by longtime New Yorkers frequent apologies about the timing of her arrival.

“I hear ‘We’re so sorry, it’s not what it used to be,’ or ‘We swear, it’s coming back,’” she says. “But there is something about it being slow that has made it an easier transition for me.” Plus, she loves all the sidewalk dining, which is the only New York she knows now.

“I giddily love living in New York,” Smith says. “It’s still exhilarating for me to explore new streets, encounter a new restaurant or shop.”

Smith seems to have embraced New York with gusto, and the city right back.

“I think the job for us as a Catholic institution is to remind the boys of their prayer, [that] their life is a prayer.” Headmaster Kim Smith