Back to school for Catholic students

The doors of the 30 Catholic schools around the Diocese of Charleston have officially opened for the 2006-07 school year.

Leaders at the diocesan level and in the individual schools say this will be a year for growth, increased focus on the schools’ unique combination of academic excellence and spiritual development, and enhancing the role that technology plays in the daily lives of Catholic school students and teachers.

“One of our major themes this year is growth, enhancement and improvement,” said Sister Julia M. Hutchison, superintendent of Catholic schools for the diocese. “It all centers around looking forward into the future, while building on a great past and an exciting present. We’re talking about enhancement of the authentically Catholic identity of our schools, and in developing new ideas on how to keep our schools financially reliable.”

Sister Julia said one of the biggest challenges for the new school year is to find ways to get more people actively involved and interested in Catholic education. She said this would include Catholics who don’t have children in parish schools, as well as non-Catholics who are impressed with the education Catholic schools provide and the role the schools play in the larger community.

“We’re looking at engaging new persons who are not presently engaged in Catholic education,” she said. “We want to spread the responsibility and support to the whole community, the civic community as well as the church and parish. Our schools put intelligent, ethical workers in the public work force and we need some help. We’re foolish if we don’t investigate what we are going to do to meaningfully engage both the folks in the pews and those in the community who are benefiting from the excellent education we provide.”

Many schools around the diocese have been working over the past few years to add new computer technology, including wireless Internet and interactive hardware like “smart boards,” computer-driven white boards that can be used in classrooms to make it easier for teachers to create lessons on a PC and then display them to students.

Sister Julia said a committee of principals from around the diocese had previously received a $75,000 grant from the Sisters of Charity Foundation to enhance technology in diocesan schools, and this year the group will be using a second $35,000 grant to further those goals.

Sister Julia also said there are plans to further develop the foreign language and arts curriculum in schools around the diocese. She said principals are also being asked to focus on improving teachers’ readiness to act as religion teachers.

“Our goal is for every teacher to be a religion teacher,” she said.

Here’s a look at what’s new at a few schools around the diocese:

Our Lady of Peace, North Augusta: 145 students in 4K through eighth grade, serving families in North Augusta and surrounding areas.

Science will be one of the main new academic focuses during the 2006-07 school year at Our Lady of Peace, said Karen Wilcox, principal. The school has a large new science lab that opened during the 2005-06 year, and Wilcox said classes taught there by Steven Arthur incorporate many different kinds of technology to make learning science a dynamic, “multi-sensory experience,” as Wilcox described it.

Elementary school students visit the lab once a week, and middle school students are there every day.

Wilcox said this year’s sixth- grade class at Our Lady of Peace consists of 17 boys, and no girls. Because of this, the science teacher is planning on presenting lessons to the boys in “several modalities — visual, audio and tactile,” Wilcox said.

“Research tells us that you have got to get middle school boys interested in science at that age or they may never be interested, and you have to catch them with a variety of learning experiences,” Wilcox said.

The school also is welcoming a new art and music teacher, Marie Watson.

“Marie has a background in teaching gifted and talented students, and she is applying that approach — that every child is talented in some way,” Wilcox said.

Projects being planned in the art and music classes include problem solving through music, and writing exercises. Wilcox said fifth graders started working on using computers to write songs during the first week of school.

St. Anthony, Florence: 192 students, pre-K through eighth grade, serving the city of Florence and some surrounding communities.

St. Anthony spent the first half of 2006 celebrating the school’s 50th anniversary, and some celebrations, although more low-key than earlier in the year, will continue in the first half of the new school year, according to principal Phyllis Brandis. Brandis said the school has added some new playground equipment and is working with teachers to improve their computer skills.

St. Francis by the Sea, Hilton Head: 234 students, pre-K through eighth grade, serving the Hilton Head/Bluffton area.

Students returning to St. Francis will be greeted by three new faces on the faculty, according to Michael Rockers, principal. The school community will welcome three Dominican sisters who arrived Aug. 10 from Ann Arbor, Mich. Two of the sisters will teach at the middle school level, and one will teach the pre-K class. Rockers said it will be the first time in several years that the school has had women religious on full-time faculty.

“We’re so excited to have these sisters here,” Rockers said. “They are such happy, spiritual young ladies. They’d be a blessing to any school.”

Rockers said St. Francis, like many schools around the diocese and around the state, is working hard to improve computer technology available to students and faculty. He said school officials are working on getting wireless Internet access for the whole school, as well as making smart boards available to all teachers.

Rockers said St. Francis is also working on a plan to expand the school facilities, with a new gymnasium likely to be the first addition to the growing school once plans are finalized.

St. Joseph School, Anderson: 105 students, pre-K through fifth grade, serving students from the city of Anderson and Anderson County.

Technology is the word for what’s new at St. Joseph this year, according to principal Mary Ann Daly. She said the school received a $15,000 grant from a private foundation to provide wireless Internet access and laptops for teachers, and smart boards in most classrooms.

“We’re very excited about the teaching possibilities those boards and that technology will provide,” Daly said. The school also offers a computer curriculum for fourth- and fifth-graders. Students in these classes learn Microsoft Publisher and Powerpoint, and then use these programs both for classwork and for designing the school yearbook.

Daly said enrollment at St. Joseph has increased over the summer, with 25 new families enrolling their children for the 2006-07 school year.

St. Joseph is continuing its program of teaching both Latin and Spanish to elementary school students.

St. Mary Help of Christians, Aiken: 260 students, 4K through eighth grade, serving the city of Aiken and some surrounding rural communities.

Like several other schools in the diocese, St. Mary has seen a recent increase in enrollment. Principal Peggy Wertz said there are 50 new students at the school as classes begin.

Wertz said the St. Mary curriculum has two new programs for the 2006-07 school year. Four-year-old kindergarten is being offered for the first time, and students in the fourth through eighth grades can now choose between studying French or Spanish to fulfill their foreign language requirement.

“We had had a French program in fourth through eighth grades, and parents had been asking that we add Spanish, so we made a commitment to it,” Wertz said. “We decided to expand foreign language to all grades because research shows that the earlier you begin a language, the easier it is to learn it.”

St. Paul the Apostle, Spartanburg: 144 students pre-K through eighth grade, serving students in the city of Spartanburg and surrounding areas.

Principal Patti Lanthier said the school went all-out to welcome students, faculty and families back for the new year.  The Parent-Teacher Organization hosted a special welcome reception, and a picnic was held on the school playground.

“Both students and parents came in with smiles and made the first few days exciting,” she said.

Lanthier said among the new things at the school this year are new uniforms for students, new carpeting and other improvements, and a few new staff members.

St. Paul is also beginning its second year in Catholic School Management program, a nationally-based program that helps diocesan Catholic schools to improve their total outlook and focus on their mission.

Lanthier said this year’s program will focus on evaluating how St. Paul communicates with students, parents, parishioners and the general public.