Catholic elementary schools: a 21st century journey of discovery
By Mary Morrell | Contributing Editor
The library in St. Benedict Elementary School, Holmdel, is a hub of activity.
No longer just the traditional staid environment, the library has been transformed into a center for innovation where, at any time during the day, students may be found busily creating weather reports or music videos with green screen technology or exploring robotics, engineering and art with technology that includes 3-D printers.
In St. Dominic Elementary School, Brick, visitors may run into NAO, the school’s own humanoid robot that is controlled through a program written by students as a culmination of lessons in writing computer code that begin in preschool.
Students in pre-K through eighth grade in St. Veronica School, Howell, are creating unique projects in art, architecture, dance, drama, music and photography to illustrate their understanding of the Beatitudes.
This is what a 21st century Catholic elementary school looks like in the Diocese of Trenton. But the most important element, stressed Kevin Donohue, St. Benedict principal, is the anchor for all innovations, initiatives and academics – the Catholic faith.
Going Above and Beyond
For centuries, Catholic schools have existed for the moral, spiritual and intellectual growth of students from all social and economic backgrounds, striving to form disciples who would be prepared to meet the challenges of their unique times and places.
Today, schools in the Diocese of Trenton continue their intentional pursuit of excellence, each with a mission to establish a culture of faith, a culture of learning and a culture of relationships while meeting the challenges of a rapidly changing era.
Carol Bathmann, St. Dominic School principal, stressed that their school mission “is the driving force behind strategic planning and day-to-day instruction. It is the foundation of a progressive atmosphere of learning, the catalyst for implementation of exciting new instructional strategies and resources, and the impetus to continually improve the manner in which students are taught so that they can realize their potential.”
While every school in the Diocese is expected to fulfill the requirements of both diocesan and state curriculums, “all schools are encouraged to go above and beyond the existing curriculum, to take it to another level – whether that means in technology, world languages, theater, chorus, math – whatever area defines who they are,” said JoAnn Tier, diocesan superintendent of schools.
In light of the planned merger of St. Veronica School, Howell, and St. Aloysius School, Jackson, into Mother Seton Academy, and the new St. Mary Academy, which will be a transformation of All Saints Regional, Manahawkin, into a parish school under St. Mary, Barnegat, Tier also explained that a designation as an academy challenges the school to have a particularly robust program of academics and activities, as well as a strong Catholic identity.
The challenge, however, is not exclusive to the academy model, as “we encourage all of our schools to select specific areas of study as a broad learning experience for their unique school community,” Tier said.
The number of schools embracing this challenge, she said, is reflected, in part, by the number of National Blue Ribbon Schools of Excellence in the Diocese, which has now reached 13. The award is made annually by the U.S. Department of Education and the Council for American Private Education and presented to schools based on their overall academic excellence and high level of student achievement.
Preparing for the Future
The diocesan “Guidelines for 21st Century Catholic Elementary Schools,” developed by diocesan staff and school principals using research-based best practices, recommend each school integrate at least two initiatives from a list that includes such things as advanced subject classes; global education, which develops relationships with foreign country students; interactive studies utilizing technology and science, such as planetary explorations, storm-tracking, environmental issues and inventions, and a focus on STEM – a field of integrated education that continues to expand in the areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
For St. Dominic School, the STEM program finds eighth-graders “deep into chemistry and preparing for some awesome chemistry lab experiments,” explained Joanne Arnold, seventh- and eighth-grade STEM teacher and diocesan science curriculum chairwoman.
“After chemistry is completed, eighth-graders will begin physics, begin to build and race mouse-trap cars, robotic fuel cell cars, launch rockets, build bridges and build pneumatic robotic arms that help the injured,” Arnold said.
In St. Veronica School, the STEM program has become the STREAM program – science, technology, religion, engineering, art and math.
“As we began this new school year, we incorporated religion into our STEAM program to ensure that our Catholic teachings are lived in our everyday life,” explained Resurrection Sister Cherree Power, principal, stressing, “As educators, we must help our students build 21st century skills to prepare them to live and work in today’s world. Our Catholic school values are aligned with the 21st century skills of collaboration, creativity, communication and critical thinking.”
In addition to a focus on academics and technology, Sister Cherree said, “We at St. Veronica School believe we must make relationship-building an important aspect and purpose for our school. Students have different talents, gifts and backgrounds, therefore we strive to promote friendly relationships and foster a spirit of mutual understanding. Reaching out and embracing people different from themselves is an important skill for relationship-building in the 21st century. These relationships are built through various sport’s teams, drama productions, clubs such as student council and social justice, whereby our students learn leadership skills, team-building, and developing lifelong friendships.”
A Community Effort
Donahue also believes in the importance of building relationships, something which has recently borne fruit for his school community as they move forward with a planned environmental learning center. The center will include an outdoor learning lab along with comprehensive lessons designed to support not only STEM, but all disciplines addressed in the pre-K to eighth-grade curricula.
The generous giving of family, friends, community members and alumni to last year’s diocesan-wide Day of Giving fundraising initiative (#GivingTuesday) resulted in proceeds that will help make the outdoor classroom a reality, Donahue said.
“There is great value in Catholic education,” he stressed. “The moral and ethical values, the breadth of knowledge, the religious formation, the experience of community – it’s a foundation for life.”