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Ed. Magazine

Saved by the Ball

How a high school football team and determined principal helped keep their tiny school from closing
Football players embracing
A team win from "All In: Miracle at St. Bernard’s"
Photo: Courtesy Foglight Entertainment

When Linda Anderson, Ed.M.'23, was offered a new principal job a few years ago, she was told she had a year to save the century-old Catholic school in Fitchburg, Massachusetts. Enrollment had plummeted from a high of 800 to less than 100. 

And save it she did. But not by the hand of a higher being. It was through better marketing, updated business practices, and the fast feet of a surprising partner: the school’s football team. 

“The football team is really such an amazing part of the story” of saving St. Bernard’s, says Anderson. “The year that they won the Super Bowl, they were the smallest team in the state of Massachusetts. They had about 25 players, which is barely enough to even field a football team. Most of them were playing both offense and defense. They were resilient and humble and hardworking, and they just really embodied the spirit of the school and what we were all trying to do.” 

The players and coach knew that their wins were a rallying point for the struggling community. In that way, says Anderson, the team “was a microcosm of the school itself and this mission that we had to overcome tremendous odds. I think what they did more than anything was they helped to fill our tanks and inspire us to keep going because they kept going.” This was especially true when Anderson was out fundraising and started to feel worn down. “It was this kind of tug-of-war of influence and success. 

“What they did more than anything was they helped to fill our tanks and inspire us to keep going because they kept going.”

The team just captured the incredible energy and heart of the entire institution. That was what really made their story so integral to our success.” The school eventually raised $2 million and enrollment more than doubled since 2019. They also updated their mission and Anderson began consulting with other religious schools on strategies for staying open. And they got the blessing of the local archdiocese to operate as an independent Catholic school. 

It was a comeback story that captured the attention of film producer Jeff Bowler, a former St. Bernard’s student. Bowler heard about the school’s plight and the football team’s success and reached out to talk about doing a documentary. 

“I think their heartstrings were tugged by what our story was and how it all shook out,” Anderson says. “They felt like it was something that the world should hear, but also something other Catholic schools specifically should hear because they’re closing left and right.” 

All In: Miracle at St. Bernard's debuted at the end of 2022 on Prime Video, a year after Anderson started as a part-time student at the Ed School. Doing homework while running a school, she says, helped her reconnect as an educator to what it means to be a student. 

“We get lost a lot. We're so busy doing our jobs that we forget that being a student is exciting and it’s a privilege, but it’s hard and it takes grit and discipline," she says. "Those aren’t easy things to have even when you're an adult. I would empathize with my students when I’d see them in study hall, cramming in a paper. I was like, girl, I got you. Mine’s due tomorrow, too. Let’s go. We can do this.”

Ed. Magazine

The magazine of the Harvard Graduate School of Education

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