David Moffa is the Principal at Holy Cross Preparatory Academy, a private school in Delran, NJ serving students in grades 9-12. David has taught at the high school level in both public and private schools, and his mission as a school leader is to build communities where teachers and students feel a deep sense of personal value and empowerment.

Show Highlights

Proactive leadership in school management

The value of community engagement in achieving educational excellence.

Spread Positivity and tap into why it matters with a free tool betterleadersbetterschools.com/positive.

Building Communities in Schools where teachers and students feel valued and empowered.

The challenges of figuring out funding, growing enrollment, and organizational structure for the school.

Tailor Programs to Meet Enrollment current educational trends.

Create a career and life prep school with community involvement

“The idea of a college prep school, what we’ve learned is I’m glad that our need isn’t Holy Cross College Prep Academy. What we’re learning is we’re not focused on college. It can’t be just college prep, has to be career and life prep. We’re still a preparatory academy, but preparing you for everything.”
- Dave Moffa

Dr Chris Jones

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Read the Transcript here.

Saving A School From Closing

Thanks for hitting play. Do you feel like a square peg trying to fit into the round hole of education? If so, then you’re in the right place. I’m Danny Bauer, and this is the better leaders, Better Schools podcast, the original Ruckus Maker podcast for visionary leaders who want to do school differently and make a legendary impact on their campus. Thanks to Ruckus makers just like you, this show ranks in the top .5% of over 3 million worldwide podcasts.

In today’s show, I speak with Dave Moffa and there’s a number of stuff that we cover today, but most exciting is how Dave shifted the word on the street, which was, “oh man, that school is about to close. To oh man, that school is doing some really great stuff now”, which led to increased enrollment, more community buy-in, and just an excitement and buzz on campus that you honestly can’t pay for. That’s all because of Dave’s leadership and the team that he built. And we’re here to tell that story of him making a ruckus and showing us how to make the shift to do school differently again. Thanks for listening, and we’ll be right back with the main conversation after a few messages from our show sponsors. Hey, Ruckus Maker, I’ll make this quick.

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If you want to get more of what you want, when you want it as a school leader, I’ve got a tool for you. The secret is to celebrate the positive things happening on campus and to go multiple levels deeper to tap into why it even matters when you do that. Anything is possible on your campus, and I mean anything and you start to get more of what you want when you want it. If you’d like to spread more positivity and create more value for all stakeholders on your campus, go to betterleadersbetterschools.com slash positive and download your free tool today. IXL takes the guesswork out of lesson planning for teachers. IXL’s ready-made lesson plans are aligned to your textbooks and state standards so teachers can turn to IXL for the exact content they need to help their students get started [email protected]/leaders that’s ixl.com/leaders. Even the most highly effective ruckus maker can’t be in all classrooms offering incredible Feedback all the time.

So what if teachers could gather their own feedback without relying on you? And not only their own feedback, but meaningful feedback that would improve their instruction. Well, check out the TeacherFX.com/betterleaders and you can pilot their program today.

See what your school cafeteria makes you think of? Chaos? Headaches? Quality food? Well, Quest stands apart in the school food service industry as a partner that provides high quality food for your students. This is food you can be proud of. Learn more at Quest Food Management [email protected], or follow Quest Food on social media. That’s questfms.com. Hey there, ruckus maker. We are here today with David Moffa, the principal at Holy Cross Preparatory Academy, a private school in Delran, New Jersey, serving students in grades nine through twelve. David has taught at the high school level in both public and private schools, and his mission as a school leader is to build communities where teachers and students feel a deep sense of personal value and empowerment. David, welcome to the show.

Thank you for having me.

Absolutely. It’s like we just talked. I do want to get to that mission vision, this sense of personal value and empowerment. Before we even get there, let’s Talk about the school, because it has some really interesting history. Founded in 1957, but in 2018, it was maybe going to be closed down.

We were part of the Diocese of Trenton here in New Jersey, and in 2018, just after the 60th anniversary of the school, it was announced that the school would be closed by the diocese. A group of alumni got together and basically put a proposal forward to the diocese. Can we take over governance of the school and run it as an independent school instead? And that meant figuring out funding, figuring out organizational structure, lots of things. There was going to be a huge shift because taking away meant being fully independent. That was a big change. The diocese accepted the proposal, and that’s when I joined the school in 2018 from a different local school. I came over to be part of that first administration in the new school.

I’m guessing that you are an alum.

I am not, actually, no.

Interesting. Okay. I’m very wrong. So the alumni wanted to do something about it. How many of them ended up joining the team? Or was it more of a governance, like where to get this put together?

It was more of a governing board. So the group of alumni who kind of got it together created a board that ran the school. They were like the founding board of the school. And initially, especially because early on, they had nothing, they were very much an operational board, that they were involved in the running of the school. But over time, that’s now changed. At this point, we just celebrated this past week our fifth anniversary of the school, which is an awesome accomplishment and awesome achievement. At this point, they’re no longer an operational board, they’re a governing board. And we have people here in the school who run things and have that decision making ability. We’ve taken off. We’ve done really well.

Daniel-What have been some of the highlights? Congrats on five years.

Thank you. I think some of the biggest highlights, obviously, number one, just being general enrollment as a private school, that’s always a key. And I think a lot of people doubted whether we could grow our enrollment, let alone keep it where it was even. But we have seen an increase in enrollment as a school every year since we went independent. A big part of that is we’ve refocused the mission of the school a little bit. The school was a large diocesan Catholic school. At one point, it had 1400 kids or something. Now we have 300 students. But we tailored the way we act as a school in terms of our program of studies, our curriculum, our activities, everything to meet that goal. We are a smaller college prep school now that’s more individually focused, and we’re not trying to be the big diocese in school anymore. I think that to some people, that is more appealing right now. And that’s where we’ve started to see our enrollment grow, because there are still people who might have been looking for that, and there wasn’t a niche for that, necessarily, in this area.

That small, personalized, individual attention. You could do some really interesting things, I’m sure. I’m curious. So you’ve been independent now? Five years. Congrats again. What were some of the things you changed and what did you keep?

So one of the biggest things we tried to keep was a lot of the tradition, because we knew that even though we were independent, we had the same alumni. People who graduated here in 1975 are still Holy Cross alumni, and they still see this as their school, and we still want them to. It is still their school. We wouldn’t be here independent if not for the alumni. So there are a lot of traditions and things that they had that we made sure we had to keep. Things related to general high school activities like homecomings and stuff that they ran a certain way that we tried to keep being run as much as possible, the ways that they did them, athletic programs, arts programs, that kind of stuff, because I think it plays a big part in who we are. That tradition is a big part of it. What we started to change a little bit was some of our program of studies started to change. So we started trying to add more focus on the STEM curriculum, which is pretty popular in general in education right now. But I think we got ahead of the curve a little bit by getting some alumni investors involved and getting our students involved in it. So because we’re smaller and independent, we can operate with some student voice in ways that maybe a larger school wouldn’t think to. So, for example, when we started our STEM program, which was my first year here, we bought a couple of 3d printers for the school to use in the STEM program that was using money donated by an alumni.

To determine what 3d printers were buying, we held a competition among the students where they had to pitch. It was like Shark Tank. They had to pitch proposals to the alumni who were donating the money as to which 3d printers we should buy and why they best. And then the winning team, that was actually the one that went with, and they got a prize for it, too. And then that program is a great example of how we’ve involved students, because that program has continued to grow, and it’s grown entirely out of what students are asking for or seeing a need for in their classes. And then the teacher comes down, talks with us, and we kind of go through, okay, well, here’s what we can do. Here’s what we can’t do to the point where now, this year we just implemented, we have a VR lab right next to the STEM room where the kids can go in and put on the VR goggles and do, like, 3D design stuff in there as well, which is really awesome.

Talk about authentic learning experiences, too, involving the students from pitch to completion of the project. So that’s really interesting. I meant to ask about enrollment, and I’d feel terrible if I didn’t get this question because there are leaders that I know, right, that are either starting schools or taking over private institutions. And they ask me quite often about enrollment, and that’s not necessarily my superpower at all. Could you share some of the things that have worked for you in terms of growing that enrollment? Because I know every private school listener is going to be like, taking notes.

Dave’s masterclass, right?

When I came over, my first role here was to run admissions and enrollment for the school for the first two years. So that was my task. That was my job. And honestly, what it comes down to for me is I’m a soccer coach. That’s what I did for a long time as I taught. I love the sport, and my take on programs that I had was always, you don’t worry about recruiting. You don’t worry about that stuff. You make sure the kids who are there have an incredible experience as much as possible.

Obviously not everyone’s going to love everything, but if they’re having a good experience, then they’re going back to their rec programs or their club teams and they’re telling their friends, and then when their friends are getting to high school, they’re thinking, well, I want to go play for that coach at that high school because my friend told me how fun it is or how good they are, how good the training is or whatever. So the key is to make people who are here want to be advocates for you, because then you’ve multiplied your ability to market the school or the team or whatever.

I took that same idea to the school and basically made it that I wanted to try to form as many good connections as I could here with the students and with the parents and then with the feeder school principals. So I went around and had meetings with the feeder school principals my first year here in the first few months just to talk about, well, what issues did you have with the school in the past? What is your impression of the school? What do you think your kids at your school’s impression of our school is? And just trying to start forming those relationships. Because as much as I’m selling the school, I was really selling myself as well. And if they build a good relationship with me and they start trusting in what I’m doing and trusting in the kids start having a good time, they start telling their friends, actually, no, Holy Cross is pretty great. I don’t know why you think it’s so bad, or why you thought it was closing or whatever else. Before you know it, the word on the street starts to shift from, oh, that school’s always in danger of closing, to, oh, man, that school is doing really cool things now. I can’t wait to go there. Here. It’s getting bigger, like that type of conversation, and it’s really started. We’ve seen that turnover now, and that has shifted entirely.

You talked about being a part of admissions early in your tenure at that school, and congratulations. You had a very difficult time. It had to navigate COVID. You were mentioning you were doing a lot of admission stuff on Zoom. I’m curious. You keep from your experience running admissions now that you’re a principal.

I think the two biggest takeaways I got from that role were, number one, like systems automation. As much as possible, we had an admissions office. It was me, and I had to run it as if we had an army of 30 people. There’s a lot that I had to do to try to figure out what’s the most efficient way to make this work and then create this illusion that it’s a much bigger operation than it is. And I think then now, in the principal’s role, it’s a lot of the same thing. It’s a lot of, how can I multiply out what’s being done so it doesn’t look like it’s just me doing it. And in this role, I have the opportunity to actually involve more people in that now.

So I can delegate that to people to do that. It’s not just systems, but that’s a big part of it. And then the other part being communication, because emissions is all communication. It’s all, how am I talking to people? What’s my communication like on the phone? What’s my follow up like? Building those relationships? It’s all relationship building. And I think being the principal is also all relationship building.

A lot of the skills that I really focused on in the admissions office related to communication, I now translate to being the principal, not just to the students and the families, but to the faculty that communicate with the faculty, work with the faculty, create relationships with the faculty in a way that they feel that bond, they feel that trust, and there’s that confidence in each other that they can have confidence in me, and I can have confidence in them in that way.

Relationships make me think about teacher retention. I know that’s something you really invest quite a bit in. What have you been doing about that topic?

Yes. For us. When you’re a small, private catholic school, salaries are not what attract the teachers to your school. So you’ve got to find ways to make them want to be here or love the work environment so much that they don’t want to go somewhere else. So you create other positives where you can. For me, I mean, my biggest thing has been trying to really respect the professionalism of the individual, right? It’s a job, it’s a profession. You’re trained for it, you’re the expert in it. What business do I have to come into your classroom and tell you something else that you’re doing wrong? Obviously that doesn’t mean anyone does whatever they want all the time, but always approach every conversation and interaction from the perspective of you’re a professional who has an expertise in this.

Tell me more about why you chose to do it that way or like that type of personality. And I think giving teachers a lot of autonomy in their classroom to do things a little bit more differently or there’s no standard structure from classroom to classroom as to how things have to run. I know we have a lot of teachers here who came from other schools or came from public schools where they felt like the district might have an initiative or a curriculum that’s kind of just forced on everyone in a certain way. And they really appreciate when they’re given the freedom to do things a little more off book or off script here and because they believe in it or they want to try something new and they feel like they have the actual authority to try something new. And if it doesn’t work. And I’m not going to come down crazy on them because I actually appreciate the creativity and the effort to try something new.

The only way to innovate right or evolve education is to take some risks and experiment. So I appreciate you creating the space for those teachers to play with their craft and make it intentionally better. So that’s really pretty cool.I’m enjoying our conversation, Dave. We’ll take a quick break here for some sponsor messages. When we get back, I want to ask you the difference between college prep and career and life prep. If you’re a leader who’s passionate about making a difference in the lives of every teacher and student on your campus, you need to read. Executive functions for every classroom. Many teachers find themselves spending more time managing student behaviors, relationships and needs than actually teaching. But executive functions for every classroom offer a solution. It provides you with the tools and strategies to help your students develop the critical executive functioning skills they need to succeed. You’ll see the impact in their engagement, focus, and overall success. Ready to make real change on your campus? Visit organizebinder.com/book and click on the link to order a copy for everybody on your staff. Grab executive functions for every classroom today. Go to organizebinder.com slash book. What do you see in your classrooms? And how did you see it?

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We are a college prep school. That’s what we started as Holy Cross Prep Academy. The idea of a college prep school, what we’ve learned, I think, is I’m glad that our need isn’t Holy Cross college prep academy because what we’re learning is we’re not focused on college. Can’t be just college prep, has to be career and life prep. So yeah, we’re still a preparatory academy, but preparing you for everything. And I think a big part of that is right now there’s such a focus on higher education still in a lot of secondary schools, but a lot of kids are looking for higher education for their next career path or whatever they’re doing next. It doesn’t have to be that they go to the best college possible for a lot of them. There are trade possibilities, there are apprenticeship possibilities.

There’s other things out there. And if they get the right preparation in terms of the environment that they’re in, the character that’s built, the skills, the work ethic, those type of things, then realistically, whether they take that to college or a trade school or an apprenticeship or whatever else, we’re preparing them to be successful in whatever that is. So we’ve tried to incorporate that. Our guidance office has added some programs, like job shadow programs for our juniors, where they get to go and actually pick a career they’re interested in, shadow that job for a day. They get to do mock interviews where we had local community members come in who were business owners or managers, and basically do. Each kid had to go through four interviews to pretend as if they were applying for a job with that place, and then they got feedback from that person as to how they did and things to think about and that kind of. Then, I mean, even just recently, we had somebody from a local large tech company, Lockheed Martin, come in and talk to our students about, they have a great program there that you can go work as an engineer in Lockheed Martin right out of high school without a college degree, and you can start earning ability to have them actually pay for some of your degree and then get to the same point as if you went to school to be an engineer at some university and ended up thousands of dollars in debt. So that’s when we talk about career prep or life prep.

It’s making sure they know there’s all those options and all of them can be ways to be very successful. It’s not just let me go to an Ivy League school and that’s it. That’s a great opportunity also. But it’s not the only opportunity. Right?

That’s really interesting. And you mentioned the job shadowing. Are there any other types of field trip experiences or community partnerships ?

We do a ton of that as much as possible here. This past year, we have significantly increased our field trip experiences trying to get kids out into our community. We try to tap into the resources within the community so parents who work at different businesses or companies that might invite us in. We had, like, our communications and media studies class. Got to spend a day at NFL Films and learn a little bit about the process and the production there. It was really cool. Very cool. We had an awesome experience with one of our alumni who’s an FBI agent, and got to take our forensics class. I got to chaperone this one. This was fun where I went on a trip down to Washington, DC and got a tour of FBI headquarters and got to learn kind of a behind the scenes look of what it’s like to be an FBI agent there. And we had to submit all of our information three months in advance to get clearances and all this kind of stuff. 40 kids down. It was awesome. But things like that to get these kids out doing more and seeing more beyond just what colleges are you applying to? And what can I read online about this school or that school? We try to really get them out of the places as much as we can.

Fun fact, I wrote to the FBI in middle school asking what I would need to do to prepare right to be an agent. And they sent me a detailed pack. I wish I still had it. They mailed me and, like, here’s stuff to prepare type of thing. But my life took a different turn.

Clearly, you didn’t end up in that direction.

Yeah, not at all. But it was so funny. At that age, I was interested in the FBI or drawing for comic books.

That was two very different paths.

I think what it was was to do comic books by day and fight crime at night. I basically wanted to be Batman. This gets us to the last three questions I asked all my guests. If you could put a message, Dave around on all marquees around the world for a single day, what would your message be?

I think the message for a school marquee, that you are wanted here, we want you here, we want kids here. We want kids to be happy here, but we want them to know that we want them. That’s really what it comes down to, honestly. That was a big thing in admissions, too.

Totally. Let’s talk about your dream school. Right. If you were building your dream school, Dave, you weren’t constrained by any resources. Your only limitation was your ability to imagine what would be the three guiding principles. Building this dream school.

I think the first one would be to throw out any kind of structure. So I would want every teacher and every person who works there to have the idea that they think outside of structure. Whatever you think traditional school is supposed to look like doesn’t have to be that way. Maybe it ends up that way if you think it’s best. But number one, think outside of structure. Number two, always treat the people first, so the grades and the content and everything else second person first. That’s got to be a guiding principle. And number three is to have fun. If you’re not having fun in the school, the kids aren’t having fun in the school. So no one’s going to want to be there. So you got to have fun.

Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. We covered a lot of ground on today’s episode of everything we discussed. What’s the one thing you want a ruckus maker to remember?

I want people to remember, try things. And you never know what’s going to be possible. Because I use our school as a perfect example. People didn’t think we could create an independent school, have it be successful, have it flourish, and then have it be innovative, even. And look where we are now. So if you have the right people in place, you can really do a lot of awesome stuff.

Thanks for listening to the better leaders better schools podcast ruckus maker. How would you like to lead with confidence, swap exhaustion for energy, turn your critics into cheerleaders and so much more? The ruckus maker mastermind is a world class leadership program designed for growth minded school leaders just like you. Go to betterleadersbetterschools.com/mastermind, learn more about our program and fill out the application. We’ll be in touch within 48 hours to talk about how we can help you be even more effective. And by the way, we have cohorts that are diverse and mixed up. We also have cohorts just for women in leadership and a BIPOC only cohort as well. When you’re ready to level up, go to betterleadersbetterschools.com mastermind and fill out the application patient. Thanks again for listening to the show. Bye for now and go make a ruckus.



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