A Candid Conversation with President Bonnie Cotter

Originally published in the Fall 2017 issue of The Carondeletter .

The Carondeletter recently found time on President Bonnie Cotter's busy schedule to ask her about the school's students, faculty, Catholic identity, strategic priorities and more. Bonnie's relentless commitment to excellence for "our girls" was evident in her straightforward answers.

How would you describe today's Carondelet students?
Courageous, composed, confident, eager to learn more, to tackle what's ahead of them. Also, their caring for the community and each other is really palpable.

What does "sisterhood" mean at our school?
Sisterhood is a great word, because it means more than just being a sister to each other. It's about being a sister of the world, about going forward and looking outward. I connect sisterhood to the CSJ charism of service to the dear neighbor and how there's a unity and a unifying force of God that runs through all things. To me, the sisterhood is part of that unifying love for each other and for those people and things that are around us.

You claim that Carondelet can become "THE high school of choice for all girls in the region." Is this really possible?
I absolutely know we can be THE high school of choice for girls in the region. We are in a unique position to change the trajectory of young women – in how they view themselves, how they relate with the world, how they see their future, their opportunities – we can impact that. On top of that, we have a spiritual grounding that makes our girls much more aware of the world around them and their duty to be a force for good. Developing caring young women with the sky as the limit... you don't get any better than that and that makes us the best.

An impressive group of science and technology leaders is teaming with Carondelet faculty to develop STEM and Innovation facilities and curricula. What do you expect will come out of this effort?
Incredible relationships and partnerships that will provide more exposure for the school, for one thing. People in tech industries, both in Silicon Valley and throughout the Bay Area are learning about our school and our amazing kids. They will be able to provide entrée for internships for our students as well as mentorships for our faculty. In addition to science, technology, engineering and math components, we envision innovative programs in creative design, leadership skills, project management, and entrepreneurship. These partnerships will help us create all that and ensure that it is real-world and relevant.

Are we prioritizing STEM over other disciplines?
Not at all. The cross-disciplinary, hands-on approach we are taking is going to be highly effective across the board and requires the humanities and the arts to be fully integrated in all learning. A new development in science has ethical implications. Developing new technologies requires creativity and problem-solving skills. The real world requires bringing disparate ideas from across all disciplines to bear in creating new solutions to the world's problems.

"To me, the sisterhood is part of that unifying love for each other..."

-President Bonnie Cotter

You believe that diversity and inclusion are marks of an excellent education. Why?
Understanding how others think is essential for personal growth. Having classmates from other backgrounds challenges us to look at things a different way and reflect on our own thinking. It also helps all of us to understand that every action, every word has an impact that resonates beyond just ourselves. What we say and do has a ripple effect that extends well beyond the immediate circumstance.

What have you found to be the biggest misconceptions about Carondelet?
I think two things. One is that we only serve Catholics. That is not who we are, that is not who Catholic schools are, that is not what the Sisters of St. Joseph are really all about. It's about serving everyone but to do so from the heart and teachings of our Catholic traditions and values. The other misconception is that we are just a smaller public school with Catholic faith mixed in. In fact, we are an independent school with a high expectation that we deliver an excellent and personalized educational experience that brings out the best in each and every young woman who attends our school. That includes not only what they will come to know, but who they come to be and what they are called to do to make the world a better place.

With only a few Sisters on campus, is today's Carondelet less Catholic than it was a generation ago?
Not at all. The Sisters recognize that lay leaders are now the stewards of their ministry. We are relying on the Sisters to help us learn everything we can about their charism and history so we can carry on this wonderful mission through the years ahead. Even with only a few Sisters here, we continue to live out the CSJ charism to ensure the mission of the school stays strong while also responding to the needs of the times.

How do you get students and faculty to understand and buy into Cardondelet's mission, vision and values?
First of all, we try to make it very present in everything we do. We have visible symbols – the mission and vision statement and core values are posted in every classroom and all meeting rooms. Secondly, for our adult community, we are actually embedding these values into every job description and every performance evaluation. For our students, we embed them across our curriculum as standards for what we expect from our students. We continue to hold liturgies and daily prayer as a central focus for bringing the community together and all of our student activities and events are explicitly tied to how they further and promote our mission.

"My overall vision has remained steadfast—to strengthen the very core and fiber of the school..."

-President Bonnie Cotter

Do you feel students who aren't Catholic are comfortable here?
I believe our Catholic values are easily embraced by people of all faiths so when students and parents from other faiths visit, I find that they do feel comfortable here. And when they actually enroll, the students feel very included. We show respect for other faiths in celebrating our Catholic Masses and in our classrooms. Faculty members would not really know which students in their class are Catholic and which are not.

As you start your fourth year as President, what is your vision for Carondelet in these next years?
My overall vision has remained steadfast—to strengthen the very core and fiber of the school in order to support the mission in such a way that, no matter what the school faces in the future, it will always be nimble and proactive and strong. That means building an organization with a deep talent pool and a culture where everybody understands and contributes to who we are in our bones.

What trends do you see on the horizon that Carondelet will face?
The world of technology has really changed the game in education - students learn differently. Also, our graduates will need to be prepared to adapt to ever-changing career opportunities, whether they work locally, nationally or globally. Flexibility will be essential. What stays the same here, however, are our mission and the core values we believe will sustain our women no matter what they face.

Will Carondelet be able to continue to recruit and retain the teachers that you're describing as critical to our mission?
First of all, I think people like to work here because we are a supportive, congenial community; we have wonderful students and wonderful colleagues. Secondly, we are competitive in our compensation. Third, and perhaps most important, is our environment in which teachers can both innovate and know they're making a long-lasting impact on the lives of kids – that's what drew them to education in the first place. Our principal, Kevin Cushing, is doing a great job creating this environment.

When you watch our young women playing soccer, tennis, lacrosse, softball, water polo, and swimming and diving at the new Athletics Complex – what will you be thinking?
I will be thinking that for over 50 years the girls didn't have this, they had to do without. That was never okay. But our team tackled this inequity and made fixing it a priority. The community got behind it, donors got behind it and it has been full speed ahead. Within a few months the girls will have a beautiful new home for the next 50 years and beyond. That's a pretty incredible testament to the school and community.

Bishop Barber has expressed concern about the state of parish schools. Are you concerned about our parish schools and especially the middle school years? What can Carondelet do to help?
Yes, we are concerned about the state of Catholic parish education in our region which is just a reflection of what is happening nationally. We continue to reach out and look for new ways to support and partner with the principals at our elementary and middle support schools as well as the diocese to find creative solutions. We want to help strengthen all of our Catholic education components because we are dependent on each other.

What is your greatest challenge going forward?
I think the greatest challenge is just that there is so much to be done. You look at the girls and it just compels you to want to give everything to them right now - to help improve this or that aspect of their Carondelet experience. We have to prioritize so we can sustain the initiatives we're undertaking and continue to deliver the level of excellence that our girls deserve.

What is the role of the Board today?
The trustees are really great, both the lay members and the four CSJ Sisters on the board. They have been wonderfully supportive of the direction of the school. They understand the day-to-day business side of the school and how the charism and business side need to be in sync in order to keep the mission strong. It is not easy work, but together we have achieved much and we are dedicated to moving our school continually forward.

What is it that we haven't discussed that you would want readers to know?
We need to have everybody on board to keep the school strong and thriving, especially as we have fewer Sisters to help and we have these significant challenges ahead of us. We need alumnae, parents of alumnae, friends of the school and our past and current families to become enthusiastically engaged in building our future. As much as we love the good old days, standing still is not an option anymore. We have to look ahead to help create that future for these girls and we're stronger when we all do come together.