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Sunday Conversation: Mike Maher discusses his journey to John Cooper

December 28, 2018

While he’s now the Head of School at The John Cooper School, Mike Maher had a path that took him through several states on the East Coast before he settled in The Woodlands.

Maher sat down with The Villager to talk about his journey and what he’s most proud of about the school he’s at now.

QUESTION: Tell us a little bit about yourself.

MAHER: I was born and raised in Camden, New Jersey. I went to Camden Catholic High School, then left New Jersey to go to Washington, D.C. I was recruited to play baseball at the Catholic University of America there. I was there for four years, got a bachelor’s degree in social science with a certification to be a high school teacher. My career goal at that time was to be a teacher and a high school baseball coach.

I did that for two years at a Catholic high school that was within walking distance of the university. I was also serving as an assistant baseball coach for the university team I had played on. The most important part was that I was being paid by the university, and therefore I could go to graduate school and not have to pay for it. I immediately started in an educational administration master’s degree.

I graduated from college in 1977 and finished my master’s degree in 1980. I would take one or two classes during each semester, one or two in the summer, and it took me three years but I was able to get a master’s degree.

During that time, I had to shadow administration people, and observe and interview. It became clear to me that as much as I love teaching, at some point in time I could see myself being an administrator. When I finished all of that, I went back to the high school that I was coaching and teaching at. At that point, their dean of students was being transferred somewhere, and they invited me to the be dean of discipline.

I did that for two years, coached the baseball team there. In my first year out of college, I met and started dating my wife. The summer after she graduated, we got married. The driving force in my career at that time was still coaching baseball. Washington, D.C. was a really expensive place to live, but the hotbed of high school baseball at that time was Florida.

We moved to Miami, and I was hired as the dean of students and head baseball coach at a school called Ransom Everglades, which was an independent school. It’s a little bit like Kincaid in Houston. It wasn’t that I disliked Catholic education, but the academic rigor and the quality of the teachers, and the interest and intellect of the students was at an entirely different level.

I was the dean of students for three years, and I was promoted to the position of upper school head. That required me to stop coaching at that point. I spent two years doing that. That school was a very highly regarded independent school in Miami, with a very good reputation in the field.

When there’s a school looking for a headmaster, they will farm the second-level administration of someone who’s looking to do that. That happened in my fifth year with a school in Gainesville, Florida. I was 31 years old, and the reason I got the job was that I was coming from a “wow” school.

The plan was to stay there, my wife was going to do her Ph.D., and then we’d see what the next opportunity was. We ended up staying seven years.

Then, I was contact by a Catholic school in Atlanta. They had never had a layperson as the head of school, but they didn’t have any priest in their pipeline to fill that. So we moved from Gainesville to Atlanta. I was there seven years. It was a really strong school.

I then interviewed at five schools, but only two had opportunities for my wife nearby. One of them was here at John Cooper. Like a lot of other people, when you first said Texas to a person from New Jersey, you picture dirt roads and horses, but we did enough research to realize that The Woodlands was something different.

I came down (to John Cooper) and interviewed and liked it. I saw it as a school with tremendous potential, but just not able to get moving forward in a coordinated and high-spirited way. We moved here and I started here in July of 2000. I’ve been here ever since.

It was the most radical move we made. There had been some turnover here, so the board that was doing the hiring said that if we accepted the job, please be committed to us for at least five years. And that was 19 years ago.

When I started we were 750 students, we’re 1,245 right now. We had the middle/upper school building, lower school building, two art barns and one gymnasium. And a baseball field and soccer/softball field.

And now we have a performing arts center, student center, second gymnasium, the rock center, math and science center, a new lower school library, new spaces in the middle and upper school that are in the original building but are libraries now and a fifth-grade center. Our track and football field was forest when I got here.

We had to go to the Woodlands Development Company and say we were going to build the track and football field, and we’d like to request a transfer of ownership of the land. That’s exactly what they wanted. The Woodlands, from Mr. Mitchell to the present day, has always wanted a K-12, independent, non-sectarian option in The Woodlands for people who do not want to send their kids to public or religious schools.

QUESTION: What are you most proud of during your time here so far?

MAHER: When I started, we had just enough kids and just enough teachers to be a very effective and productive academic experience for our students. But, our students and their parents at that time were sacrificing other parts of what an elementary, middle and high school experience should be in exchange for the strong academics, the personal attention, the skill set to be attractive to competitive colleges.

What we wanted to do was create a whole experience that mirrored our academic experience. We made a big push for athletic facilities, which brought kids and parents to our campus. We have a second-to-none visual arts department, although their buildings now are the oldest ones on the campus and they’re next-in-line for the next generation. There was a strong feel among the students that it was an academically rewarding experience, but socially they had less things to do and knew fewer people than they would if they went to another school.

Elevating the extracurricular, athletic, artistic and social life of the school to the level that we knew we had reached academically was what we felt was going to grow the student population to the critical mass. Our students don’t give up those other aspects of high school now that they used to if they attended John Cooper. We have enough kids to run all the programs, but we don’t have so many that we have to deny kids.

The Woodlands was growing, and what happened over time was that we connected with a constituency of families that were always curious and interested in Cooper, but never quite took that first step. We kept pace with the steady growth, though.

I believe from the few conversations that I had with Mr. Mitchell before he passed away, was that this is what he wanted. I think there were times that he was frustrated that it wasn’t going fast enough, and it was a convergence of circumstances. We had a great kids, we had great teachers and a very dedicated board that wanted to see the school accelerate. We just needed somebody who had the experience and the courage to take that risky step forward.

Now, we’re working on maintaining this enrollment and making sure our programs improve and advance with what we now understand to be the way and what kids are being taught in college. Our focus right now is on making the program as progressive and contemporary as it can be. We’re working really hard to bring diversity to our student body and our faculty.

Even within the rigorous academic program, we’re working to deliver it in ways that kids don’t get unnecessarily anxious over. They need to learn to cope with stress and anxiety, but they need to cope with that in a 16, 17, 18-year-old way. And not by making the program easier, but by keeping the standards high and having a strong and supportive faculty that will spend as much time with as many kids as needed for them to experience success.

QUESTION: What do you like to do in your free time?

MAHER: I used to play baseball, and I liked playing softball, but in the year my wife and I became empty nesters, I got a package of golf lessons that was non-refundable and expensive enough that I was going to have to do it. I went grudgingly, and I am a complete addict now. I’m not any better than when I started, but how can you not enjoy golf in The Woodlands? I watch the Astros, Rockets and Texans. It’s a great sports town. My wife has become a fanatic of Cougar football. I will watch almost any game in any sport.

jane.stueckemann@chron.com

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