‘All in’ for Catholic schools

Photo: Stephen Brashear Photo: Stephen Brashear

Community, family, faith: Blanchet Principal Sam Procopio preaches the value of Catholic education

When 12-year-old Sam Procopio’s family moved to Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood, the sixth-grader wanted to continue attending St. Joseph School on Capitol Hill, where he’d been enrolled since kindergarten.

“That was my life, my entire life,” the adult Sam explains.

The decision was a big commitment: Every school day, Sam left home around 7 a.m. to catch the No. 48 Metro bus for the hour-long ride to St. Joe’s. After school, with his mother attending college classes (his father lived in Chicago), Sam went to a friend’s house, where they had a snack and did homework. At 5 p.m., Sam caught the No. 48 for the long ride home.

He commuted for three years, and it was worth it, Procopio says today. “I excelled athletically. I excelled in the classroom.” And some of his best friends remain people he met in his kindergarten class.

The Catholic “family” that surrounded him at St. Joe’s was just as important as the academics. His principal, teachers, CYO coach and friends’ families kept Procopio on the right path, helping build his foundation in the faith and setting him up for success as a student at Bishop Blanchet High School and three Catholic universities beyond that.

“It’s so tangible, the impact that Catholic schools and the Catholic Church have had on my life,” said Procopio, who has taught and coached at Catholic elementary and high schools and is wrapping up his first year as principal of Blanchet, his alma mater.

“All these experiences have made me a Catholic schools person for life.”

CYO basketball old photoLee Adams, left, a CYO coach at St. Joseph School, had a huge impact on young Sam Procopio (front row, third from left).

Transformed at Notre Dame

After graduating with a math degree from the University of Portland (which included a year studying in Australia), Procopio considered going to law school. But he wanted to do something service-oriented for a year or two.

He applied for Teach for America, then “somehow stumbled upon” the Alliance for Catholic Education master’s in education program at the University of Notre Dame. “It taught you about faith, community and education,” Procopio said. “I knew in my heart I was meant to do that program. I put my heart and soul into the application.”

Teach for America didn’t accept him. Then a small envelope arrived from Notre Dame. In Procopio’s experience, a small envelope from a college meant a rejection letter. He didn’t open it.

“I put it in the recycle bin and went for a two-hour walk, figuring out my life’s next steps,” Procopio recalled. Later that day, a friend convinced him to open the letter — which congratulated him on being accepted to ACE.

As part of the program, Procopio spent two summers taking classes at Notre Dame and taught for two years at a Catholic middle school in Charlotte, North Carolina, where he also coached soccer and basketball (continuing a long coaching career that began as a Blanchet freshman).

The time at Notre Dame was transformational. The small, close-knit program was intentionally faith-centered; the conversations about faith were deeper than any Procopio had experienced.

“They taught you to be an amazing teacher. They taught you to be an amazing community member,” he said. “But every single thing they did was teaching you to be a faith leader in a school.”

Holy Names gameSam Procopio joins colleagues from Holy Names Academy at Seattle’s Safeco Field in August 2014.

Piecing it together

Procopio was just a year old when his parents divorced, living with his mom and brother in government-subsidized housing on Capitol Hill. His mom studied for her GED and worked random jobs to put food on the table. “We had nothing,” Procopio said.

Every other weekend, the boys stayed with their dad, who took them to Sunday Mass. Although she had no way to pay for it, his mom, a baptized Catholic, wanted her sons to go to Catholic school.

Longtime St. Joe’s principal George Hofbauer “found a way to let our family in [with] massive scholarships,” Procopio said. “Whatever we paid, which probably wasn’t a lot, was pieced together by my mom and grandma,” he said. “They just made it happen.”

Through Procopio’s years at Catholic schools, there were many positive influences: Hofbauer, all his teachers, CYO coach Lee Adams and a campus minister at Blanchet.

Adams, an O’Dea grad who coached Procopio in grades 5–9, was a disciplinarian, Procopio said. “For a middle-school boy to have that kind of fatherly figure in your life straightening you out, we entered high school with the right mindset and the right moral compass,” Procopio said. “I credit him with that more than anyone else.”

At Blanchet, the pastoral presence of Father Gordon Douglas — a “legend” known to students as Father Doug — had a huge impact on Procopio. He remembers the orange shag carpet of the school’s chapel (now a drama room), where students would lie on the floor, do reflections and listen to music and Father Doug’s stories. The memories of the chapel are vivid, Procopio says, snapshots of time away from “the craziness of a high school day … and being at peace.”

Procopio familySam and Britt Procopio are sending their children, Dom, 5, and Carmen, 3, to Catholic schools so they can benefit from a community of shared values.

Lessons from public school

After graduating from ACE, Procopio returned to Seattle, aiming to teach high school. Getting no offers from Catholic high schools, he accepted one from the Bellevue School District.

But by his second year of teaching and coaching, he was again considering law school. The public school environment just didn’t feel right to him: Teachers made an exodus to the parking lot at 3 p.m. and sometimes colleagues complained about meetings that didn’t mesh with their collective bargaining agreement.

This wasn’t the family, community approach that he experienced at St. Joe’s and Blanchet, where the teachers “would help you after school as long as you needed them,” Procopio said. “They were also your coaches. They were also leading retreats.”

He took a job as a math teacher at Holy Names Academy in Seattle after a friend working there encouraged him to apply. Procopio spent nine years at the all-girls school, where he also taught AP computer science (for which he received an educator award), helped implement the school’s digital device program, was chair of the math department and coached soccer and basketball.

“I looked forward to waking up and going to work, because the kids were so good to work with,” Procopio said. “Every day was fun.”

Liz Swift, Holy Names’ head of school and principal, describes Procopio as genuine and honest, a thoughtful and engaging leader. “He looks at what is good and the talents of each person, and tries to bring that out in everyone,” she said.

While at Holy Names, Procopio enrolled in a principal doctorate program at Seattle University. It was the same year he and his wife, Britt (also a Blanchet alum — they were married by Father Doug), had their first child. So Procopio spread the coursework over five years to lessen the impact on their growing family — Dominic, now 5, and Carmen, 3. (The family attends Our Lady of Guadalupe and Holy Rosary parishes in West Seattle).

As Procopio was finishing his degree in 2017, Blanchet was looking for a principal. It was a once-in-a-lifetime job opportunity, he said, but it also was a big risk leaving the Holy Names community and work he loved.

His first year at Blanchet has been “really good,” Procopio said. He has been developing relationships and working on critical growth areas identified in a 2017 accreditation report. Procopio has credibility with the faculty and a great relationship with students, said Tony DeSapio, Blanchet’s president. “They notice when the principal’s at a game or the play or going on a retreat with the kids,” DeSapio said.

Hofbauer, one of Procopio’s mentors, said Procopio is a special professional who really cares, wants to make a difference and lives his faith. “He walks the walk, he doesn’t just talk the talk.”

playing ping pong at Bishop BlanchetBishop Blanchet principal Sam Procopio is pictured at Bishop Blanchet High School on March 23. Photo: Stephen Brashear

Gaining a Catholic moral compass

Blanchet played a pivotal role in Procopio’s decision to become a teacher. As a freshman choosing a service project, Procopio — who played varsity soccer and basketball — decided to coach soccer at St. Joe’s. “It impacted what I wanted to do with my life,” he said. “Coaching soccer is what made me fall in love with working with kids in a school.” This is the first year that he isn’t coaching a sport, “which is crazy to think about,” Procopio said.

As a Blanchet senior, Procopio was nominated for a religion award that required him to interview his mother and, among other things, ask why she had sent him to Catholic school.

He expected her to say that Catholic schools provide a superior education. Instead, she surprised him with her answer: She wanted him to go a diverse school, and a place that taught spirituality and morality. “It’s forbidden to do that in public schools and you need to get it,” she told him. “And if I don’t have [the] capacity to give you that in fullness, that’s the reason why I sent you to Catholic schools.”

Her decision was a game-changer in Procopio’s life.

“Everyone around me is someone who I’ve collected along the way, starting when I was a 2-year-old going to Sunday school at St. Joe’s,” he said. Procopio wants his children to have what Catholic schools and the local church have given him: a community of shared values and a moral compass aligned with Catholic social teaching.

“It guides everything you do,” Procopio said. “It’s the voice in your head that’s making you choose one route over another.”

Northwest Catholic - May 2018

Jean Parietti

Jean Parietti is the local news editor for NWCatholic.org and features editor for Northwest Catholic magazine. You can reach her at jean.parietti@seattlearch.org.