Project focus, Latin integration helps Buffalo school stand out

| October 21, 2015 | 0 Comments
Father Nate Meyers blesses the new Stations of the Cross at St. Francis Xavier school in Buffalo. Bob Zyskowski/The Catholic Spirit

Father Nate Meyers blesses the new Stations of the Cross at St. Francis Xavier school in Buffalo. Bob Zyskowski/The Catholic Spirit

It was a busy Wednesday at the Catholic grade school on the outskirts of Buffalo, some 50 miles northwest of Minneapolis on Hwy. 55.

After Mass that started the day at St. Francis Xavier School, all 205 students in kindergarten-through-eighth-grade made their way outside to the Mary Garden next to the school. That’s where the parish’s pastor, Father Nate Meyers, blessed new Stations of the Cross for student prayer.

Then it was back to class, where project-based learning, Principal Alisa Louwagie explained, “takes a real-life problem or scenario and asks students to problem solve, to find resources for, to answer questions and create a presentation.”

Heidi Griffith’s third-grade class worked on retelling the creation story. Griffith offered what she described as “gentle guidance,” but for this lesson, groups of students teamed up to share what they’d learned, deciding for themselves how to do that.

Two girls and two boys, for example, painted the backdrop for a play they planned to put on.

“It’s fun for them to have a choice in what they’ll do,” Griffith said. “It’s interesting to see their take on things. It’s hands-on. They almost teach each other.”

Down another hallway, 26 new MacBook Airs were being readied for a technology class. Outside on another side of the building pumpkins and squash that students planted grew in the Seeds of Faith Garden’s raised beds.

The building of an outdoor classroom is underway, and students are learning how to cultivate grapes, thanks to the assistance of nearby Buffalo Rock Winery.

“It helps students connect with nature and understand where their food comes from,” Louwagie explained. Some of the produce has made its way to the school cafeteria for students’ lunches, she said, and the pumpkins and squash were to be used as decorations for Grandparents’ Day.

Children in grades K-8 take Latin, a program Louwagie started for several reasons. “That’s the root of our Church,” she said. Children learn prayers such as the Our Father in Latin. “It helps in their English classes, and it really helps them to be thinkers,” Louwagie added.

In a town of nearly 16,000 with many who commute to the Twin Cities for work, calling St. Francis a rural school doesn’t seen right.

“We have some farm families,” Louwagie said, “but we’re a little too close to the city to be defined as rural.”

However, among the best things St. Francis Xavier School has going, she said, are characteristics often attributed to small towns. “The students, families and staff are a real community, truly a family,” Louwagie said, “and everybody’s united in the faith — that creates that bond.”

Another asset is the faculty. “I have tremendous teachers,” the principal said. “I’ll come in on weekends, and the teachers are here, too, and late at night, thinking of different ways to do things.”

Louwagie said recruiting teachers hasn’t been a problem in the four years she has been principal.

“We don’t get the number of applicants they might get at a public school district or a school closer in [to the Twin Cities],” she acknowledged, “but we get good, quality applicants who are really good teachers who want to have their faith be part of their day and who want to share that faith with students.”

St. Francis’ teachers echoed those words.

Griffith, who is in her eighth year of teaching, said, “For me, the religion program is key. I like being able to combine faith and learning.”

Nancy Marquardt agreed. She’s a 21-year veteran.

“I have students going through things in their lives, and only faith can answer their questions,” Marquardt said. “You can pray in the classroom. You can talk about faith in a complete way.”

St. Francis’ teachers say using project-based learning has put new life into their teaching. They point to academic achievements such as last year’s eighth graders’ presentation on how geology affects the Buffalo-area economy. “It elevates a lot of students,” Louwagie said. “When they realize they can do things like this, it’s empowering.”

While enrollment is stable and the 70 students in the parish preschool program indicate there’s potential for growth, marketing and recruitment is still a challenge, Louwagie admitted.

The school campus is an attractive facility built in 2006, but it is located at the city limits more than two miles north of the parish church, which is in the center of Buffalo. It will hopefully be a growth area, but right now somewhat out of sight, out of mind for people in town, Louwagie said.

“We count on word of mouth about the great things we’re doing and parents sharing that, the family atmosphere,” she said. “You can’t bottle that.”

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Category: Catholic Education