Cologne principal, Latino students help turn around struggling school
As both principal and religion teacher at St. Bernard School in Cologne, it’s Sister Jancy Nedumkallel’s job to teach the children spiritual concepts like faith — an important attribute she has practiced while working passionately to keep the school’s doors open.
Just one year ago, enrollment had dipped to 54 students in kindergarten through fifth grade (there were no sixth-graders, although St. Bernard’s is a K-6 school), prompting an urgent review process with the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.
St. Bernard was one of about 10 schools undergoing the process to evaluate its sustainability as part of the archdiocesan strategic planning process.
Thanks to Sister Jancy’s drive and creativity, infused with a strong measure of faith, the school not only has stayed afloat, but appears to be headed toward longer-term sustainability. Twenty-six Latino students are attending this year, helping to push enrollment to 63.
“[Sister Jancy] is just a powerhouse,” said fifth- and sixth-grade teacher Judy Glander, who has taught at the school for 35 years and went there herself in the 1970s. “She just has such drive. She wants our school to succeed and tries to find whatever ways she can to make that happen. She has great faith that things will turn out well for our school.”
A test of faith
But Sister Jancy’s faith was tested last year, when school enrollment was at 54 students. She and others feared the school might close. But during the review process with the archdiocese, Sister Jancy and others developed a plan to keep the school’s doors open.
Sister Jancy and school officials expressed confidence in the long-term sustainability of the school, in part because of increased enrollment mainly from an influx of Latino students from surrounding communities.
Last year, 13 Latinos enrolled. This year, the number has doubled.
Two issues Sister Jancy has had to work through to make this happen are transportation and funding. Because the Latino students come from nearby communities outside the parish boundaries, she had to arrange busing for them with the public school district.
She also has worked to provide the finances, through grants and parish donations, for these students, many of whom cannot afford the full tuition of $1,900. And, on top of that, there are language issues because students are coming from households in which Spanish is the primary language spoken.
Thanks in large part to Sister Jancy’s efforts, the money has been there for the students to come. To be sure, she has some strong marketing features to highlight — Mass is celebrated four days a week, and graduates go on to successful academic careers in high school. In the last 10 years, seven graduates of St. Bernard went on to become valedictorians of their high school class.
“It’s a long-standing tradition of academic excellence,” said Sister Jancy, a member of the Franciscan Clarist Congregation, based in India, along with Sister Pranitha Parambil, who came to teach at the school six years ago. “I have a great faculty, a great community and the kids are awesome.”
Delight in Latino students
Watching Sister Jancy’s efforts with amazement is the pastor of St. Bernard, Father Martin Shallbetter. With a smile on his face, he notes that “Sister Jancy is in charge,” then goes on to express his delight in the presence of the new students.
“They’re wonderful students,” he said. “They’re grand and they’re a joy. . . . They’re an asset. They bring a whole dimension to learning and they’re doing well.”
Another stakeholder in the school’s progress is the pastor of a nearby parish, Father Thomas Joseph of St. Nicholas in Carver. Fluent in Spanish, he celebrates a Spanish Mass weekly at Guardian Angels in Chaska, which also has Latino students at its school. Father Joseph has directed some families toward St. Bernard and would like to see all Catholic schools welcome more Latinos.
“The momentum is already there,”?he said. “It is not just the school in Cologne; every Catholic school has the potential to bring in [Latino] children. It is like setting the forest on fire. Once people buy into how the sisters in Cologne have succeeded . . . we can make Catholic education a dream come true [for all].”
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Questions? Call editor Joe Towalski at (651) 291-4455.