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Catholic Schools Week (Jan. 29-Feb. 4) always brings with it an air of celebration and gratitude.
This year’s observance will include an extra element of “with God, all things are possible.”
The Catholic schools in the Jefferson City diocese weathered the COVID-19 pandemic well, with students collectively scoring above national averages at every grade level, according to the latest standardized test results.
“I congratulate our students, parents, teachers and administrators for this success,” stated Erin Vader Ed.D., diocesan superintendent of Catholic Schools. “Everyone in the Diocese of Jefferson City can feel proud of our Catholic education system — our strength comes from their longstanding support.”
Reflecting the Light
In October, the Iowa Assessment was administered to third- through eighth-graders in the 37 Catholic elementary schools in this diocese.
Collectively, the students in each grade here exceeded the national averages.
Specifically, the Catholic school students in fourth, sixth, seventh and eighth grades were found to be performing at or above a grade level higher than their current grades.
These results reflect a strong response to pandemic learning challenges across the diocese, with no signs of pandemic-related academic decline demonstrated in the data.
Dr. Vader noted that educating the mind and spirit is good for both.
“As always, the focus of our mission is creating a Christ-centered environment for learning, where students can grow in their Catholic faith as they benefit from our strong academic tradition,” she said. “Our hope is for every child to grow into a thoughtful, generous and charitable citizen who reflects Christ’s light in this world.”
Kathryn Coulson, principal of St. Brendan School in Mexico, attributed much of her school’s current success to hard work, a family mindset and a relentless focus on Christ.
She pointed to the teachers’ response to the COVID-19 pandemic at the end of the 2019-20 school year and the beginning of 2020-21.
“We really concentrated in those early months on continuing to provide good instruction to our students,” she said.
St. Brendan’s pre-school and primary teachers created instructional videos for their students, with easy links so parents could help their children access them.
“They also created packets that parents picked up immediately,” said Mrs. Coulson. “And each day, they would provide instruction for what students should be doing, and gave that instruction through the videos, and let the parents work through it with their children.”
Teachers of the older students taught in real time using Google Classroom or posted instructional videos for students to watch.
Parents helped make sure their children were logged on and ready to learn.
Over that summer, Mrs. Coulson and the teachers reevaluated their remote teaching strategies — what worked well and what needed improvement — in case the pandemic or other circumstances would require more learning at home.
“We took a hard look at our diocesan standards and what each student should be mastering at each level,” said Mrs. Coulson. “And whatever benchmarks weren’t being met in terms of rigor, we would spend time reviewing.”
The teachers found ways to do that while keeping the students up-to-date on the requirements of their current grade level.
Teachers also had to work on breaking down the isolation children were feeling from being separated from their friends — first while learning at home, then while keeping a safe distance in person.
“That’s where a lot of our faith came into play,” said Mrs. Coulson. “Even though we could not be right next to each other, we were able to connect through faith, through prayer, through the Mass.”
Students in different grades wrote letters to each other during the pandemic, helping them stay connected as a school family and as a family of faith.
The teachers themselves stayed busy learning.
“I firmly believe you educate the educators and help them get better at the job,” Mrs. Coulson stated. “My role is to help them be the best teachers they can be.”
They sought creative ways to help individual students who were falling behind in any of their subjects.
They also reevaluated their textbooks and brought in additional resources to help fill-in the gaps.
The school’s literacy teachers spent a year honing the fundamentals of teaching reading and writing.
Other teachers learned more about helping students who are falling behind catch back up.
At every turn
Father David Veit has been pastor of St. Brendan parish for about six months.
He noted that recently, the wind blew a stack of papers out of his car. Without hesitating, a fourth-grader waiting for recess jumped out of line, chased down the scattered leafs and handed them to the priest.
“That’s very typical of what I’ve experienced with the kids here since I arrived six months ago,” said Fr. Veit.
This past fall, students had a lesson in their religion classes about the ancient practice of praying on All Souls Day for people who have died, whose souls are being purified before entering heaven.
The students got enthused about doing that for their deceased family members and others who are at rest in the parish cemetery.
“They worked out when go to confession, and how they would get to the cemetery and pray, and we had several parents go along,” said Fr. Veit.
The students wound up getting so involved in praying at every grave, they didn’t want to leave.
“It’s not just that we can have religion class every day, although we do,” said Fr. Veit. “Our school is Catholic, and our faith pervades everything we do.”
Off to a good start
Years ago, a St. Brendan parent started referring to the “St. Brendan difference.”
“We use that phrase a lot now,” said Mrs. Coulson.
It starts with a focus on faith and keeping God at the center.
“We always begin with, ‘Know Christ, grow in Christ, make Christ known,’” said Mrs. Coulson.
Each school day begins with an assembly in the gym, with the students and teachers praying a morning offering and asking the Blessed Mother, their guardian angels and all the saints to pray for them.
“So right off, they’re being reminded that not only is our school and parish family praying with us, but so are the saints in heaven,” said Mrs. Coulson.
After attendance in homeroom, the students head over to church. They pray the Rosary together each Monday and the Divine Mercy Chaplet or another devotion each Tuesday.
They attend Mass each Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.
Mrs. Coulson said it’s well worth the time taken.
“The teachers will tell you over and over again, they would much rather start the day in church, because it has such a positive impact on the students throughout the day,” said Mrs. Coulson. “It means they’re able to get much farther in academics and everything else.”
The students also spend time in Adoration each Wednesday and get a chance to go to Confession.
“It all builds up a sense of family within our school,” said Mrs. Coulson. “You can feel it.”
The entire faculty knows each student and looks out for him or her throughout the day.
“As a family, we can recognize when something’s going on with one our students, and we work together to help solve it and make things better and stronger,” she said.
“Like a lion”
Approximately 7,000 students attend Catholic elementary schools in the Jefferson City diocese, which covers 38 counties in central and northeastern Missouri.
Fr. Veit is convinced that having a Catholic school helps energize a parish and all of its other ministries.
He observed that such an environment, created with joy and a sense of community, draws entire families deeper into the practice of their faith.
Sometimes, students who are not Catholic decide that they want to enter the Church.
“Truth is like a lion,” said Fr. Veit, paraphrasing St. Augustine. “You don’t need to protect it, just let it out and it will take care of itself.”
He noted that Catholic schools in this diocese have been benefiting for decades from a stewardship model of support from all parishioners.
The cost of education is largely borne by parishioners’ sustained giving to their parishes, making Catholic education accessible to more Catholic students.
In keeping with the diocesan pastoral plan, parishes are now in the process of moving away from a fundraiser mindset and toward a deeper application of everyday stewardship for supporting all parish ministries.
“There’s no separate entity called ‘St. Brendan School,’” the priest noted. “It’s all part of St. Brendan Parish, and we’re cultivating a mentality of treating it all as such.”
Mrs. Coulson is convinced that many of the current St. Brendan students who decide to raise their families in the Mexico area will want to send their children to St. Brendan someday, based on their own experience.
“I believe they’ll be aware of how we helped set them up for success,” she said, “not only in high school with academics, but also into adulthood with the building up of their character.”
For Catholic Schools Week, Fr. Veit suggested praying not just for the success of St. Brendan School but for everyone in the parish to have a deeper appreciation for their Catholic faith.
“Our school helps with that by nurturing children in an environment that is holy and exposes them to what the Church teaches, day-in and day-out,” he stated.