Principal’s bittersweet departure highlights rural joys, challenges

| November 4, 2015 | 1 Comment

Most Holy Redeemer School in Montgomery fifth-grader Abbey Malecha, left, reads to kindergartner Nolan McBurnett in a program where older students read to younger ones. Bob Zyskowski/The Catholic Spirit

At Most Holy Reedemer in Montgomery, a higher percentage of students come from farm families than at most Catholic schools in the archdiocese.

“Kids will have a debate [about tractors],” said Mindy Reeder, at the time Most Holy Redeemer’s principal. “Are you a John Deere family or an International family?”

One of the benefits of its rural Le Sueur County setting is its close proximity to nature, Reeder said. Traveling for field trips to farms for research takes only minutes.

Teachers can easily meld science lessons with Pope Francis’ recent encyclical on the environment, helping students understand how God wants them to treat the world, she added.

Reeder, who lives nearby on her husband’s family homestead, spoke with The Catholic Spirit on her last day as Holy Redeemer’s principal. George Vondracek, formerly a public school music teacher in Wells, replaced her.

Reeder’s personal situation exemplifies one of the challenges Catholic schools face in the outer edges of the archdiocese: recruiting and keeping good personnel.

With two children in college and another in high school, Most Holy Redeemer’s principal salary isn’t enough for the Reeder family at this stage, she said. In mid-September, Reeder became the principal at Nativity of Mary School in Bloomington, more than 30 miles from home.

“I made a choice basically for financial reasons,” Reeder said, wiping tears from the corners of her eyes. “It’s really hard to leave.”

Bridging tech divide

Mindy Reeder

Mindy Reeder

Reeder’s five years as Most Holy Redeemer principal, however, left her with insights she shared without hesitation.

“People don’t realize two big things,” Reeder said. “First, we have 40 percent of our students on the free or reduced lunch program.”

She found that poverty in rural schools doesn’t get the attention it does in cities.

“It can be a frustrating experience,” Reeder said. “Grants often are limited to urban schools. There’s a whole dynamic that is being lost sight of. Main Street is being depleted. To get to good work, families are traveling 40 to 60 minutes each way.”

Second, many rural schools and families are 5-10 years behind in technology, Reeder said, and both public and private schools in rural areas are in the same situation.

“It goes back to our funding,” she said. “There’s a huge differentiation between access to technology and wireless access that is completely not being addressed.”

Outdated technology was something Reeder knew she had to address when she became Most Holy Redeemer’s principal in 2010.

“Five years ago we had green-screen Apples from the 1980s and ’90s in our computer room, and no wireless capability,” she recalled. “People in rural schools just accept it sometimes.”

Rather than the previous “cut, cut, cut” approach to keep the school open, strategic planning and surveys helped her create a vision to guide Most Holy Redeemer School forward.

“Through prayer and envisioning that dream,” Reeder said, “it became a reality.”

Community commitment

Today, smart boards and wireless capability are part of that reality, as are increased prayer opportunities throughout the school day and a special faith focus for each school year. So is a multi-age learning environment, which allows teachers to advance or support students as needed.

“We built an opportunity for our children to catch up and not be behind,” Reeder said.

It’s working. After four years, student test scores continue to increase each year in every subject, Reeder noted, and average scores are 20 percent higher than at area public schools “even though we have the same poverty and the same diversity,” she added.

The school initially lost enrollment when it launched its multi-age approach, but most of the last five years have seen a boost in numbers. It’s up again this year, with 65 students in kindergarten-through-grade 8, and 22 in the pre-kindergarten program.

Those relatively small numbers force a principal to be “very judicious in hiring,” as Reeder put it. She looked for teachers with multiple licenses or those with specialties who could teach more than one subject. A preschool teacher, for example, doubles as the school’s art instructor.

Reeder said Most Holy Redeemer has been blessed with faculty willing to teach for salaries significantly lower than those in larger schools.

“You can go to Lakeville and make a lot more,” she said. “People in Catholic schools are here for very different reasons. There’s a faith commitment, a community commitment, a true dedication.”

When Reeder saw teacher Elly Franek in the corridor, she called her into the principal’s office. The 26-year-old Franek’s commitment to staying, Reeder admitted, was one of the reasons leaving Most Holy Redeemer was so difficult.

At a meeting at the end of the last school year, Franek said she wanted to continue living and working where she grew up and went to school, graduating from Most Holy Redeemer in 2003.

Reeder recalled, “She said, ‘I want to stay in this community and live here and survive. I want to show my friends you can make it in Montgomery.’ ”

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Category: Catholic Education, Featured