Unique courses, activities building blocks for the future

In St. Mary of the Lakes School, Medford, Pre-K3 and Pre-K4 students not only have the opportunity to work on Mac desktop computers and iPads, they learn coding, too. Courtesy photo

By Lois Rogers | Correspondent

Along with forming students in faith, Catholic schools around the Trenton Diocese strive to offer young scholars a wide range of academic programs and extracurricular activities that stretch the boundaries of the educational experience.

These unique courses, programs and clubs have been created to meet the needs of students from Pre-K on up whose interests, as they grow, run the gamut from rigorous academics to building the skill sets they will need in the future.

Never Too Early

One example of how even the youngest students are benefiting from curriculum advances can be found in St. Mary of the Lakes School, Medford, where students in Pre-K3 and Pre-K4 enjoy an array of special content areas such as music, art, technology, library, Spanish and gym.

Cathy Bjorklund, director of admissions and advance, explained how youngsters enjoy technology class in which they utilize Mac desktops and iPads.
The students, she said, are even “coding and practicing problem-solving and planning and sequencing skills in preschool using ‘code-a-pillars.’ After rearranging his signments a few times, the kids will discover that if they plan out a path for the code-a-pillar and put his pieces together in the right sequences, they can get him to follow it.”

“The more the kids rearrange the pieces, the more they develop critical thinking skills,” Bjorklund continued. “Similarly, exposure to the other content areas builds curiosity, is fun and makes for a seamless transition to kindergarten and the other grades.”

Social Media Footprint

In Lawrenceville’s Notre Dame High School, keeping students on top of the global wave of mass communication is Cindy Bannon’s goal. One of the ways she does this is focusing on the development of mass communication over the centuries from the printing press to the digital age.

In one of the units of a senior elective she teaches called Introduction to Communications, Bannon and the students hone in on how the digital landscape has evolved and its effect on society. The unit looks not just on how the media has changed but on how it has had an impact on everything from politics “to how we do business.”

She said she’s working with seniors who have a mature outlook and who can consider how a student’s social media post might have an impact on getting into college. They learn, she said, that if a college is going to invest in them, their social media posts may come under scrutiny.

Looking at the size of one’s digital footprint and what it says is “something I want them to do,” Bannon said. “They do an exercise where they Google each other’s names to see what comes up.” She also shares how by its very nature, social media has enabled people to “put on masques” that create unrealistic expectations in others.

The experience, she said, has enabled students who need to fill in an elective the ability to “branch out on their own” responsibly in the social media world. “Digital media is a hot topic – it’s a thread that runs through all levels and classes. If we are being true to our mission as Catholic educators, we have a huge responsibility to the behavior they exhibit on the internet,” Bannon said.

Global Impact

The global perspective is a major focus in Toms River’s Donovan Catholic, where the International Baccalaureate Diploma Program has “encouraged our students to gain an international outlook,” vice principal Kathleen D’Andrea said.

The only Catholic school in the state to participate in the program, Donovan Catholic offers a curriculum that incorporates global awareness into courses. To receive an IB diploma, students must achieve in six basic disciplines including literature, sciences, social studies and the arts.

“Teachers bring in global views. For instance, in teaching the history of World War II, students would learn what the Russian perspective was. In today’s world, you have to try to understand international culture,” D’Andrea said.

Arianna Markatos, a senior who will graduate in June, credits the program with “opening up her mind. I found the global perspective very interesting. You are not just studying how America works.”

Mater Dei Prep is also looking to impact the world, starting with personal health and safety. On Jan. 11, the Middletown school hosted the first graduation ceremony for students in the Emergency Medical Services and Nursing Institute. Sixty-five students received certificates for completing the Health/Emergency Medical Response course.

As the students received their Emergency Medical Responder certification and health care provider Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation (CPR) certification, John Hansen, the institute’s co-leader, spoke of how the students had received “life skills to use in the future with their friends, family and loved ones. I’m confident that these students will use what they learned,” he said, to react to emergency situations and ultimately save lives.

Senior Ashley Leach said the best part of taking the course is that it is all hands-on experience. “In the future, I would like to become a nurse, and I will be able to use these skills in college, medical school and my everyday life.”

Extracurricular Offerings

Numerous educational studies show that extracurricular activities help children discover and develop their unique talents and skills, including how to balance schoolwork with other commitments. The studies also show that these activities can help build professional skills, enhance an academic resume and lead to friendships.

The Empowerment Club for girls in St. John Vianney High School, Holmdel, is one such example. Moderated by physical education and health teacher Elizabeth Fitzpatrick, the club creates opportunities that not only encourage students to branch out of their comfort zone but raise funds for worthy causes.

Activities such as indoor rock climbing have raised money and awareness for the Joan Dancy & PALS Foundation that benefits those with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Funds from a zip line excursion went to the Colitis and Crones Foundation.

In Belmar’s St. Rose High School, a lot of the focus in extracurricular activities is on gaining insight into various career paths. “The students are required to be in at least one club activity to help build up their resumes,” said Dennis Carey, vice president for student affairs.

Offerings range from a club that introduces young people to those in public service, to a future medical professionals club. There is even a fishing club that will soon hopefully offer the innovative state program: Hooked on Fishing, Not Drugs.

Senior Sean Donohue is a member of the school’s community and county awareness club. “I have learned personally through the club how to go about pursuing one of those careers if I want to.”

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