In St. Michael, there’s a waiting list for Catholic education

| December 10, 2015 | 0 Comments
Teacher Maria Miller works on phonics with first-graders at St. Michael School in the town of St. Michael, MN. Bob Zyskowski/The Catholic Spirit

Teacher Maria Miller works on phonics with first-graders at St. Michael School in the town of St. Michael, MN. Bob Zyskowski/The Catholic Spirit

A clue to how things are going at St. Michael School in the Wright County town of St. Michael is that there no longer is a bowling alley in the lower level.

That space was converted to make room for four classrooms plus Spanish and music rooms.

Having grown from an enrollment of 241 in 2001 to 467 today, St. Michael has a waiting list for three grades.

Part of the growth came from adding prekindergarten and seventh and eighth grade to the former first-through-sixth program. And new housing development along the I-94 corridor north of Minneapolis brought young families to the area that’s 40 miles from the State Capitol in St. Paul.

“We were growing before the grades were added, though,” said Jennifer Haller, St. Michael principal.

“Development played a hand, but this is a devout community, and people have a desire for that Catholic influence in the daily lives of their children.”

Haller also is quick to credit teachers at St. Michael, who she calls “a group of outstanding Catholic educators.” Seventy percent of St. Michael’s teachers have master’s degrees, and their principal described them as “learners across all grades who are committed the community and to living their faith in their daily lives and model that for the children.”

Latest teaching tools

In a seventh grade language arts class, student Mary Herbst pops out of her seat to explain to a visitor that she and her classmates are making slide shows on iPads using an app that’s new to them.

After each presentation, their classmates give feedback to the students whose work was played on the large screen.

It’s an exercise to help the students become comfortable with the technology because they will be using the 30 Hands app for other language arts projects, teacher Anna Tangen explains.

Classmates give their attention to Maggie Kramer in their fourth-grade class at St. Michael School. Bob Zyskowski/The Catholic Spirit

Classmates give their attention to Maggie Kramer in their fourth-grade class at St. Michael School. Bob Zyskowski/The Catholic Spirit

St. Michael added an additional math teacher this year so that it could offer accelerated algebra and honors algebra — “and we have a group of kids who are ready for even more,” Haller said.

The Spanish language program has been so strong that the public high school, St. Michael-Albertville, had to create a Spanish 1.5 because St. Michael’s graduates were testing out of Spanish 1, Haller said.

In another wing, first graders are learning to count in Spanish while at the same time practicing large motor skills through motion.

It’s an initiative called LEAP — Learning through Enrichment and Academic Preparation — that former fourth-grade teacher and current LEAP specialist Heidi Gallus explained “incorporates the most recent brain and learning research,” which shows that many children learn best by connecting information with a certain movement.

This year St. Michael has LEAP class for kindergarten and first grade, and Gallus works across all grade levels and in the after-school program to support faculty adopting LEAP principles.

Haller said adding full-time enrichment specialists is indicative of how St. Michael School is responsive to student and parent needs.

Needed: More room

So, what challenges does this outer-suburban Catholic school face.

“Space,” Haller quickly replied, “hands down.”

The 1939 building was added on to in 1962, and now that the bowling alley has been taken over, there isn’t room to do much more.

Plus, since a new St. Michael Church was built a half-mile away in 2004, replacing the historic church that was right across the street from the school, there’s a physical disconnect with the church. Children are shuttled for 7:45 a.m. Mass every Friday.

She has a dream that eventually a new school building will be added on to new church campus on Frankfort Parkway.

Haller is wary that the wage gap between what St. Michael pays teachers and what they can earn in a public school district — estimated to be 25 percent — will be one of her biggest challenges down the road. It isn’t at this point.

“When I get a potential new teacher in the door and they see what kind of support they get here, I’ve got them,” Haller said.

Second-grade teacher Eileen Nygard confirmed that, and gave the credit to the principal.

“She’s so supportive of the staff,” Nygard said. “She has a really personal commitment to the children and faculty, and she’s an advocate for our mission here.”

In her seventh year at St. Michael, Nygard said she likes being able to integrate her faith into everything that happens at school.

“There’s something magical about teaching the sacraments of initiation,” she said. “It’s an amazing feeling to be part of the children’s receiving Jesus in the Eucharist.”

Next in the Beyond the beltway 7-part series:

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Category: Catholic Education