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The inspiration for New Orleans' St. Mary's Academy

The inspiration for St. Mary's Academy
The inspiration for New Orleans' St. Mary's Academy 05:26

This week, 60 Minutes reported on St. Mary's Academy, a Catholic school for young Black women in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Correspondent Bill Whitaker met two former students, Calcea Johnson and Ne'Kiya Jackson, who made math history when they both independently proved the 2,000-year-old Pythagorean Theorem using trigonometry, an achievement that was once thought to be impossible.

Whitaker asked St. Mary's Academy principal Pamela Rogers if she was shocked when she learned what the girls had achieved. 

"We were not shocked…our students can do anything. And that's what we tell them. You know, 'The sky is the limit, and we want to be up there with you,'" she told 60 Minutes. 

Rogers told Whitaker that Calcea and Ne'Kiya are not "unicorns." She said all the young ladies at St. Mary's are exceptional and are taught early that they can achieve great things. For the last 17 years, St. Mary's Academy has had a 100% graduation rate and a 100% college admission rate. 

While reporting the story of these landmark mathematical breakthroughs, 60 Minutes learned more about the "foundress" of this exceptional school.

Born in 1812, Henriette Delille was a Creole nun who lived in New Orleans. Her father was a White Frenchman. Her mother was a free person of color, the great-granddaughter of a slave from West Africa.

Delille, inspired by her Catholic faith and a desire to help others, taught slaves and free people of color, defying anti-literacy laws that punished those who tried to educate non-White people. 

In 1842, Delille founded Sisters of the Holy Family, one of the oldest Black Catholic sisterhoods in America. 

Members of the Sisters of the Holy Family
Members of the Sisters of the Holy Family, a religious order of African American nuns founded by Henriette Delille, in New Orleans, 1898. Getty Images

In 1867, inspired by Delille's vision for education, the sisters established St. Mary's Academy with the express purpose of teaching young African American women. 

Over a century later, Henriette Delille became the first U.S.-born Black person to be officially considered for sainthood by the Roman Catholic church. 

School head Pamela Rogers told Whitaker that the guiding principles of St. Mary's Academy have remained the same since its founding, and that Delille would certainly recognize the school as it stands today. 

"We continue to move forward with her vision," she told Whitaker.

"We teach young women to give service, to empower themselves, [and] to be in the community. We teach them to grow spiritually, intellectually…to be good people and give to one another."

Rogers also shared with 60 Minutes that St. Mary's Academy came close to being completely shut down after Hurricane Katrina ravaged it in 2005. She said the original school site was flooded with about seven feet of water, and the building had to be completely torn down.

Hurricane Katrina had an impact on Ne'Kiya Jackson and Calcea Johnson's life as well. 

Ne'Kiya's mother, Neliska Jackson, was pregnant with Ne'Kiya at the time. She evacuated New Orleans before Katrina hit and gave birth to Ne'Kiya in Georgia a week later, only seven months into her pregnancy. Jackson said doctors told her that the stress of the catastrophe was a likely factor in the premature birth.

Calcea Johnson, also born in 2005, spent the first year of her life living in a FEMA trailer on her family's front lawn after their home was flooded by the historic storm. 

Calcea recalled going to elementary school at St. Mary's in trailers while the school's main building was in the process of being rebuilt. 

Eventually, St. Mary's Academy prevailed. It has a new building, and expanded enrollment for pre-k through 5th grade. The school's attendance is growing but is still short of what it was before Hurricane Katrina.

Last year, Calcea and Ne'Kiya graduated and received nearly $3 million in scholarship offers. Ne'Kiya was recognized with a full-ride scholarship at Xavier University in New Orleans. Calcea accepted a scholarship to study environmental engineering at Louisiana State University. 

"I want to be an environmental engineer," the now-LSU student Calcea told Whitaker. "I want to be able to come back and help the New Orleans communities, since they helped raise me."

"Helping with climate change and helping with flooding would be a really big thing to help New Orleans. So, I want to help."

The video above was produced by Will Croxton. It was edited by Sarah Shafer Prediger. 

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