Hill-Murray School honors St. Nicholas with learning center bearing his name

| December 5, 2018 | 0 Comments

From left, senior Monica Zink, junior Daniel Garhofer and seniors Garrett Lindholm and Adam Bennett talk in The Nicholas Center at Hill-Murray School in Maplewood Nov. 28. All four spend time there regularly to get help with their schoolwork. DAVE HRBACEK | THE CATHOLIC SPIRIT

Students at Hill-Murray School in Maplewood won’t be commemorating St. Nicholas Day Dec. 6 with shoe-filled candy, a Catholic tradition. Instead, they’ll be diving deeper into who St. Nicholas was as a person — in particular, his care for children — with the blessing of a new mural in the school’s Nicholas Center.

A mural created by local artist Ed Caldie is stationed high on the south wall of The Nicholas Center, which was named for the third-century saint. Archbishop Bernard Hebda was expected to bless the mural on the feast day.

St. Nicholas likely would be pleased with the way a staff of 15 at the center works with students throughout the school day to offer assistance tailored to their individual needs. It can be as simple as helping students work through test anxiety and difficult homework assignments, or as involved as diagnosing what they call “learning differences” such as dyslexia or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and helping students learn how to manage these conditions and successfully complete their education.

Ninth-grader Michelle McGrath studies underneath a mural of St. Nicholas on display in the center. DAVE HRBACEK | THE CATHOLIC SPIRIT

The Nicholas Center launched six years ago when a couple with three children who had graduated from the school felt a need to provide more for students who were struggling in the classroom. A donation from the couple funded the creation of the center, which launched in fall 2013. The center helps students with math and reading skills, and provides support services such as counseling, peer listeners and tutors, plus strategic study and reading labs.

Originally staffed by existing teachers, the center took a big step forward three years ago with the hiring of a director, Brent Johnson, who knows firsthand what it’s like to struggle with a learning difference. Since then, other specialists have been added, including a full-time, licensed clinical psychologist, Julie Robinson, who can diagnose conditions such as dyslexia and ADHD, as well as anxiety and depression.

“I was diagnosed with a learning difference in second grade,” Johnson said. “It was affecting me in regards to my reading at that time. I actually, before that, had been held back in kindergarten because people didn’t really know what was going on.”

The issue, he said, was difficulty in writing. He could speak well, but he struggled to write his thoughts. It got so bad that, in 10th grade, “I really told my teachers that I don’t want to go to classes anymore.”

What helped him turn the corner, he said, was being able to convince them that he needed help. He got the help, and went on to earn a college degree in sociology and anthropology plus a master’s degree in social studies. He now is working on his doctorate in educational leadership.

At Hill-Murray, he wants to help students find learning styles that work for them so that they can reach their potential, as he did. And, he knows it begins with self-awareness and self-advocacy.

“Our No. 1 outcome, hopefully, for students,” he said, “is for them to be able to understand their learning difference and be able to advocate that to others, so that as they move on in their life, they can lead a successful life knowing that they’re centered with strengths, but that they can work around their weaknesses.”

One of the key parts of the program, and the first step, is to try to identify specific conditions and areas where students need extra help. This year, 150 out of 850 students in the grade-six-to-12 school get help at The Nicholas Center. But, Johnson and other staff members emphasize that the center is for all students, not just those with learning differences or special needs. As a college preparatory school, Hill-Murray’s aim is to help students at all levels, carrying out what Johnson and other staff member call “inclusive learning.”

From left, seventh-grader Emmett O’Keefe gets help from junior Andrew Kreimer during a peer tutoring session. DAVE HRBACEK | THE CATHOLIC SPIRIT

He will talk to parents before their children ever walk into the building, and have discussions about what they need. School is a continuation of that conversation, with the establishment of plans to help address learning differences of all kinds. The regular school day also features WIN time, which stands for “What I Need.” The Nicholas Center is there for students to come and go freely during WIN time, either to get the help they need or figure out what they need. Some start as early as sixth grade, others as late as their senior year when they are thinking ahead to college and wondering if they are prepared.

“I know without a strategic study lab and peer tutoring, I probably would have been held back a year,” said senior Adam Bennett, who has been using The Nicholas Center for the last four years, mainly for help in math and Spanish. “This [program] has really helped me just focus and get to work. The environment in this space is just a really great place if you struggle [with learning differences]. It really helps you, as a student, to do your best.”

Senior Garrett Lindholm struggles with recalling information during tests. He has been getting help at The Nicholas Center since seventh grade. His GPA is better than it would be otherwise, he said, and he hopes to go into teaching. Another classmate, Monica Zink, said she plans to study nursing at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, and that spending time in The Nicholas Center has helped her feel prepared to move on to college.

The education landscape has been changing in recent years, with schools, both public and private, learning how to identify and address learning differences. Resources are channeled into this area, with specialists being hired both at individual schools and in school districts. For example, DeLaSalle High School in Minneapolis has had a learning specialist for the last five years. Currently in that position is Susan Buerger, who came on board in fall 2017 and worked for 17 years in St. Paul public schools before that. She has two Lasallian Volunteers working with her to provide assistance for students who have learning needs.

Visitation School in Mendota Heights — with a co-educational pre-kindergarten-through-fifth-grade enrollment and all-girls enrollment from grades six to 12 — also works with students to identify, diagnose and manage learning differences. That, in turn, fits into a broader, holistic learning style that also pays attention to what the school calls the emotional-social component, said Beth Carver, the school’s counseling coordinator. Visitation has five counselors on staff to address conditions such as anxiety and depression, and those efforts are managed by school administrators, who work closely with Carver, a 2000 Visitation graduate who is a licensed school and clinical social worker.

“I spent a lot of time researching trends in social-emotional learning, and I see that it’s an emphasis across all schools right now,” she said, noting that she has talked to staff members at other Catholic high schools in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis and learned of their efforts in this area. “I think a part of that is in response to increased rates of anxiety and depression in our young people. … Research out there shows that since 2008, there’s been a pretty significant increase in anxiety and depression in our young people.”

The philosophy at Visitation is to know students well enough to be able to detect these and other conditions, and provide both diagnosis and help at school. Carver said emotional health is connected to learning, and keeping students healthy emotionally will pay dividends in the classroom.

Hill-Murray recognized this as well, which is why it brought Robinson, the clinical psychologist, on board full time in August.

And, Johnson said he is willing to share Robinson’s time and expertise with other schools, along with his own knowledge about learning differences. He has been talking with Catholic elementary schools and hopes they will take advantage of what The Nicholas Center can offer.

“We’re more than happy to show them what we’re doing,” he said. “We’re here to support them and encourage their school to be the strongest place possible. Our goal is not to take their students. Our goal is to make their school better, because when they [Catholic elementary school graduates] get to us, maybe when they’re in ninth grade, their learning difference has been addressed.”

Johnson said the feast day of St. Nicholas is a good time to draw attention to how a center bearing his name can help children.

“It’s a celebration of him as a protector of students, and that’s what we’re working to do,” Johnson said. “We’re trying to protect families and students by taking care of any educational needs that are possible [to address].”

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