In the 17 years Sister Suzanne Cooke has been headmistress of Carrollton School of the Sacred Heart, the indefatigable nun has accumulated an impressive portfolio of educational accomplishments at the all-girls Catholic school in Coconut Grove.
She rolled out the international baccalaureate program, expanded the curriculum to include more math, science and world languages, implemented such extracurricular activities as robotics, introduced the teaching of Mandarin to kindergarteners and helped raised millions to renovate and construct buildings, including a wellness center. But what is she most proud of?
“I introduced the five minutes of silence we call espacio,” says Sister Cooke, a woman who made sure Carrollton had its own fiber optic cable in the late 1990s when no company was willing to do the work. “It’s a way of centering yourself, of learning to be silent.”
In a frenetic world, this attention to spiritual nurturing — to the silence required for introspection — is typical of Sister Cooke.
“Sister Cooke is not only a great public speaker, probably the best I’ve ever encountered, but she is truly a wonderful listener,” says attorney Corali Lopez-Castro, a former parent council president. “A lot of times when you’re in a conversation, the other person is just waiting for you to finish so she can talk. Not Sister. She truly pays attention.”
This summer Sister Cooke will head to Washington for a promotion of sort. She will become the first head of the Conference of Sacred Heart Education in the United States and Canada, responsible for giving direction, guidance and support to each of the U.S. and Canadian schools (22 in the U.S., two in Canada) in what is quickly becoming an ever-evolving educational landscape. The move is a natural progression for Sister Cooke, in her 25th year as a head of school. She is well regarded for her leadership and organizational skills as well as fundraising prowess.
According to Tony Argiz, civic leader and chairman and CEO of the accouting firm Morrison, Brown, Argiz & Farra LLC, the headmistress has “all the leadership qualities necessary to be the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. She is a visionary, intelligent, an excellent communicator, knows how to think on her feet, is courageous and confident. She is a true leader.”
Argiz, whose daughter attended Carrollton, has served on the school’s board and continues to be involved with the school in various capacities. “Sister Cooke,” he added, “will be remembered for making Carrollton a top academic institution, and for being a person who leads by example.”
Olen Kalkus, the founding headmaster of Princeton Academy of the Sacred Heart School in New Jersey, has been appointed to take her place. Kalkus, who is fluent in English, Spanish and Czech, will be the first man and the first layperson to be Carrollton’s head of school. The school goes from pre-K to 12th grade.
For Cooke, moving on to “this exciting challenge” was not something she sought. In fact, she admits that she was reluctant to take on the role when Sister Barbara Dawson, provincial of the United States–Canada Province of the Society of the Sacred Heart, told her about it, gently reminding Cooke of her vow of obedience.
“There are still things I wanted to do here,” Sister Cooke says. “I had to pray on it for two days.”
Prayer brought her clarity but did not lessen the pain of separation. “Over the years you develop a lot of relationships in this role and you’re with people in good and bad times,” she explains.
As part of her job announcement to the school community, the headmistress, who has kept a blog called “Musings” on the school’s website, made sure to explain her decision in a video. “I wanted everybody to hear it simultaneously so no one would feel left out. This was very important to me.”
On Carrollton’s Facebook page, students, parents and alumni immediately weighed in: “Can I dislike this solely based on the fact that I don’t want her to leave?” wrote Cristina Isabel Mas.
Argiz and others seconded those opinions. “She has given the best years of her life to Carrollton, and we have been very lucky to have her.”
At 60, and after so many years at the school, Sister Cooke saw Carrollton as more than a place to work. When she speaks about Miami and the bayfront school on Main Highway, a genuine note of love and admiration underscores her voice. She still gets emotional about leaving. During a recent interview her eyes watered and she had to fetch a tissue from her desk to blow her nose.
“This is the home of my soul, the home of my heart,” she explains. “It has been both a blessing and a privilege to serve here.” Carrollton is, after all, where she found her religious vocation.
Sister Cooke, an alumna herself of a Sacred Heart school, came to Carrollton for the first time in 1976 to teach. She was fresh out of Manhattanville College in Purchase, N.Y., graduating cum laude, and admits, with a wry smile, that she was following a boyfriend south. The relationship with her sweetheart didn’t last but the one with God did. She returned north, first to Baltimore then to Newton, Mass., for her noviceship training.
In 1980, having made her first vows, she came back to Carrollton as dean of students. The Miami she rediscovered was changing before her eyes: race riots, the Mariel boatlift, wave after wave of refugees from Nicaragua and Haiti. “It was a city looking for its soul,” she recalls. “We were witnessing the ravishes of poverty.”
But it also was, she thought, a city that desperately needed what the students of a Sacred Heart School could give: “We are here to educate young woman into action.”
After five years at Carrollton, she went on to study for a master’s at the University of Chicago and to teach English in Lima before completing her final vows in Rome. She would later serve as head of a middle school in Princeton, N.J., and head of school in Bellevue, Wash.,, before moving back to Carrollton.
She helped raise an estimated $25 million to $30 million during her tenure. Long an advocate for tech education, she insisted on more math and science classes for her students. But when she felt the humanities might fall by the wayside, she made sure to introduce the interdisciplinary international baccalaureate program as well. “Her final endeavor,” Argiz says, “will be to set the school up to build a convocation center for the students, parents and staff to enjoy.”
A breast cancer survivor who went through treatment last year, she blogged about her first day back on campus in quintessential Cooke fashion, writing about the “privileged opportunity to help children and young people weave together reason, wisdom, compassion and judgment so that they become sound decision makers and sage leaders.”
She was upfront with her students during her convalescence, explaining to the high school girls why she preferred hats to wigs when she lost her hair. “It was easy to have a lot of hope,” she says now. “I always knew the community was supportive and loving, but this was — wow!”
Former parent council president Lopez-Castro says the headmistress’ greatest legacy is not just the state-of-the-art science buildings or the educational programs she brought to campus but “the girls who have graduated with such confidence and commitment to the community.”
As Sister Cooke prepares to leave, she promises to return as often as she can and with the satisfaction that “Carrollton matters to this school community and it matters to our city.” Asked about what advice she would give the incoming head of school who has lived throughout Europe and the Americas, she pauses to think over her answer.
“I’d tell him, ‘You’re going to enter an extraordinary metropolitan city that is as invested in Latin America as it is in North America. It’s genuinely a global city.’ And also that people who come here have experienced extreme adversity and yet they are still so full of hope. I’ll miss that gratitude so many Miami residents have for this country.”
Farewell Tribute to Sister Cooke
To bid farewell to Sister Suzanne Cooke, the Carrollton School community is hosting a black-tie optional gala:
When: Saturday, May 2: 7:30 p.m. reception, 8:30 p.m. dinner and dancing.
Where: InterContinental Hotel Miami, 100 Chopin Plaza
Cost: Individual tickets are $250. Proceeds go to support professional development and various endowments for need-based scholarships and expansion of facilities and campus buildings.
For more information, visit www.carrollton.org/gala or phone the school at (305) 446-5673.