Room to Grow — Schools in Diocese of Trenton find new ways to welcome greater number of students
By Christina Leslie | Trenton Monitor Staff Writer
and Rosemary Daniels | Correspondent
A visitor can step outside St. Ann School, Lawrenceville, take a mere five footsteps across a metal platform, open another door and enter a place that calls to mind the wildly popular world of Harry Potter.
A mobile classroom in the rear of the main building now holds one of two classes of fourth grade students and their teacher. A tour of the climatecontrolled, 24’ x 40’ space, quickly puts to rest any qualms about holding classes outside the brick-and-mortar school.
The building’s bright, open layout and maroon-and-white color scheme provide an updated, cheery environment in which to learn. File cabinets, bulletin and whiteboards, 18 student desks, and, most importantly, the Crucifix mounted on the wall, remind a visitor the classroom is an extension of the Lawrenceville Catholic elementary school and its motto, “Where faith and knowledge meet.”
In decorating the space, fourthgrade teacher, Kelly Meyer, had the popular children’s book character Harry Potter in mind. Her teacher’s desk is labeled “Headmistress Office,” and a poster board listing “House Rules” refer to the students as “wizards.” A “Hogwarts” school pennant is mounted above a whiteboard upon which a pair of Harry’s signature round spectacles hang, and Meyer has whimsically rested a broom against the mobile classroom’s outer wall (“That’s my ‘Firebolt,’” Meyer explained, referring to the boy wizard’s means of transportation.) The mobile classroom is one example of a local school’s response to a welcome challenge – how to accommodate a growing enrollment. On the other side of the Diocese, a Monmouth County school that is facing the same challenge has taken another approach that might well win a hypothetical award for “most creative use of space.”
St. Leo the Great School in Lincroft has repurposed much of the educational space within the original footprint of the 57-year-old building. Conference and faculty rooms have been relocated, a library has been expanded, and classrooms were moved to the core of the school to keep sequential grades in close proximity, all to fulfill the school’s mission statement of nurturing students “in pursuit of faith and knowledge.”
Good news for Catholic schools
Increasing enrollment is a universal goal among all Catholic schools – in the Diocese and across the nation – but has been a particular priority and focus since the School Sustainability initiative commissioned by Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., in 2013. The initiative set benchmarks for school viability and provided consultation and support to help schools meet their financial and enrollment goals. Key among the recommended measures was a strong marketing effort to recruit and retain more students.
These efforts have drawn some new families to the Catholic schools of the Diocese, but the results are incremental and build over time. According to administrators, the factors driving some of the most significant enrollment hikes in the last two years stem from the closing of three schools at the end of 2014. Many students from the closed schools were welcomed into neighboring schools and added to their rolls.
Figures detailing enrollment for kindergarten through eighth grade students during the 2015-2016 school year, obtained from the diocesan Department of Catholic Schools, reveal that a number of schools in all four counties of the Diocese experienced double-digit growth, including St. Ann and St. Leo the Great; Our Lady of Perpetual Help, Maple Shade; St. Gregory the Great Academy, Hamilton Square; St. Joseph, Toms River; St. Veronica, Howell; Trenton Catholic Academy, Hamilton, and St. Ann School, Lawrenceville. St. Rose School, Belmar, added an astounding 93 students to its rolls, attributed to the transfer of students from two schools which closed their doors at the conclusion of the 2014-15 school year: St. Denis School, Manasquan, and Holy Family School, Lakewood. JoAnn Tier, the Diocese’s moderator of Catholic education and superintendent of schools, commented, “It is a difficult and sad thing when a Catholic school has to close. But we are heartened to see that so many families connected to those closed schools have chosen to stay with Catholic education and have been welcomed by their neighboring Catholic schools.”
Hogwarts in Lawrenceville
John McKenna, principal of St. Ann School, noted gains of about two dozen transfer students this year from the now-shuttered Incarnation-St. James School, Ewing. St. Ann’s, recognized by the United States Department of Education and the Council for American Private Education as a 2010 Blue Ribbon School of Excellence, is enjoying the highest enrollment in 10 years with 336 students. In an interview with The Monitor, McKenna outlined plans to accommodate the projected student population in the school, which first opened in 1964.
At St. Ann’s, the mobile classroom used for the fourth grade is handicappedaccessible and equipped with the same security and communications features as the rooms in the main building.
“We can call the office or 911 from here,” said Jill Lisi, director of admission and marketing. The mobile classroom will also be used after school hours and on staff development days for meetings and presentations.
“Moving forward, we are hoping to [have] two sections of every grade,” reported McKenna, noting that the school’s fifth and eighth grades are the only single-section grades. “Next year, we will need an additional fifth grade and eighth grade classroom. “A study is now being done as to whether an additional mobile classroom might be needed … for the 2016- 2017 school year,” the principal continued, “and to evaluate the space needs of our student population for next year and years to come.”Meyer explained the utilization of the mobile classroom by the school’s two fourth grades. The students switch classes for social studies and science, and they attend classes in technology, art, music and gym in the main building, she explained. Pausing during her mathematics class on constants and variables, Meyer expressed her comfort teaching outside the main building.
Meyer, a veteran to teaching who is new to the staff of St. Ann School this year, explained the trailer had been built during the summer, opened in November, and was blessed by St. Ann pastor, Trinitarian Father Gerard F. Lynch, during a Dec. 5 ceremony. She smiled and concluded, “It was well worth the wait. This is beautiful.”
Musical chairs…. and walls
The growth in enrollment in St. Leo the Great School followed a more traditional trajectory. After an initial drop-off reaching back more than 10 years, the school has experienced consistent growth. A net gain of nearly 20 students in the last three years necessitated the changes to the campus capacity. St. Leo’s has long sponsored three classes each in their kindergarten and fifth through eighth grades, but just two sections for grades one through four. For most schools, retaining students after kindergarten can be challenging. Approaching the 2013-2014 school year, St. Leo administrators were pleasantly surprised to learn that nearly 100 percent of the kindergarten students had re-registered for the fall term, along with some new additions. St. Leo principal Cornelius Begley and director of operations Mary Koury knew this required some strategic planning. They outlined a strategy which would make the most of the usable space available in the 2012 Blue Ribbon School of Excellence. Begley explained that the school has been repurposing unused and underused space, relocating non-classroom resources and concentrating its classrooms into the main wings of the building since 2013, Begley explained. As of September 2015, there are three sections of each grade, kindergarten through eighth, as well as seven preschool classes. “We’re fortunate to have adequate space to reconfigure within our building,” Begley stated. “Our goals are to continue to increase enrollment and upgrade our classrooms, while creating a collaborative educational environment across the grades.”
The changes in the school allowed for expansion and the addition of a media center with state-of-the-art technology. In addition, the offices of the parish’s religious education department were moved upstairs in a space dedicated for them, making it easier for these students and their families to contact staff, even when classes are not in session, by circumventing the main educational space.
The school now hosts five pre-kindergarten classrooms, each with its own restroom facilities. A new entryway added in the preschool area welcomes students with a vibrant wildlife-themed mural by St. Leo the Great art teacher, Laurie Miller.
Additionally, a courtyard area in the center of the school was transformed last summer into a beautiful outdoor resource, with planting beds and a table for science instruction. The courtyard has been certified as a national wildlife habitat by the National Wildlife Federation, and St. Leo the Great School expects to see its extensive use in the spring.
With careful planning, the school capabilities were maximized, all school resources were maintained, and classroom facilities were increased, all while keeping the primary grades in close proximity to each other.
Begley remarked, “We wanted to make sure all the classes were big enough to support their unique learning environment.”