Forming the Future: Student awards, public speaking strengthen community at Bishop Fenwick High School

PEABODY -- Every morning at Bishop Fenwick High School starts with a meeting for at least one grade, promoting community among students through two unique programs.

The week begins with a schoolwide assembly to announce the recipient of Fenwick FIRST, a peer-nominated award for students who embody the school's core values. The other days of the week -- one for each grade level -- are for Fenwick Connect and Reflect, when students take turns giving speeches about topics that matter to them. Both programs have fostered unity and goodwill between students since their inception.

Thomas Nunan had the idea for Fenwick FIRST after he became the president of Bishop Fenwick High School in 2019. He wanted to identify their priorities that "come first" every day. Through his observation of students and conversations with faculty, parents, and alumni, he identified five values, represented by the acronym FIRST: Faith, Integrity, Relationship, Scholarship, and Tradition.

The school began Fenwick FIRST last year as a weekly award for students nominated by their peers and teachers.

"It's a way of reminding everybody of the things that are most important here, those key values and then the people that reveal and reflect them," Nunan said.

He said many students take pride in making nominations, and those who have received one want to nominate others to be recognized as they were. Teachers also use it to recognize "unsung heroes" in the student body.

Flynn Plowman, a sophomore from Haverhill, said she was surprised when she received Fenwick FIRST, but also felt "very special."

"When I try to be kind to others, I never do it because I want something in return, but to get recognized for that and to think that other people look up to you and respect you, it's a really nice feeling," she said.

Of the five values, Flynn said, relationship is the most important to her because the others can stem from it.

"I think when you connect with someone really closely, you can see if they have integrity, and if they have scholarship and faith and tradition," she said.

Connection is one of the purposes of Fenwick Connect and Reflect, which began this school year. Each grade level meets once a week to hear two of their students give brief speeches on a topic about which they are passionate. This program is coordinated by Dr. Kellie Tropeano, who teaches choir and theatre at Bishop Fenwick.

"We just wanted an opportunity and a space for them to be able to express themselves," Tropeano said.

Students propose their topic ideas and turn in drafts of their speeches to Tropeano, who helps them through the editing process and coaches them on both writing and delivery. She also hopes to teach students how to manage their nerves, a skill that may serve them well in adulthood.

Jodi Vigneron, the school's director of marketing and communications, has observed that students' speeches are becoming "stronger" over time.

"I think they're getting more open and honest as they go," she said.

In the weeks since the school year began, students have shown increasing vulnerability in the topics they choose for their speeches. Some have talked about their jobs, hobbies, or school clubs. Others have given motivational talks about decision-making and how to make the best of their high school years. And some have shared personal and even painful experiences -- such as Alexandra "Alex" Lagonakis, a junior from Salem, who talked about her father's heart attack.

Nick Caputo, a senior from Peabody, made his speech about the school nurse, Jennifer Faragi. He talked about how difficult her job was during the coronavirus pandemic--like Fenwick FIRST for students, acknowledging an unsung hero of the school community.

On Oct. 28, at the sophomores' morning meeting, Tropeano's daughter Elly was one of the speakers. She talked about her aunt, and only after expounding on all her lovable qualities revealed that her aunt has Down syndrome. She then appealed to her classmates not to use "the R-word," which she has heard some of them use before.

Nunan later said that the impact of a student asking this after her telling her story was completely different than it would have been if a teacher had simply told them what to do.

He said he finds it "ironic" that students are comfortable giving speeches to their class about things they would not share in a conversation with just one or a few people.

"It's a little different context, and they know they're going to be affirmed, and there's a way in which, sometimes, they're more open in this context than they might be somewhere else," Nunan said.

He said one result of Fenwick Connect and Reflect is that students "tend to treat each other better" as they are more aware of what their peers care about.

"They tend not to be so glib or gruff," he said.

Tropeano said Fenwick Connect and Reflect is "way more than just public speaking, it's community building."

"I really love that ability to connect to people and to see a different side of people," she said.

She expressed excitement for the future of the program.

"I'm committed to making it work here. And I'm excited about what can happen," she said.