Neighborhood outreach pays off for Ascension School

| August 28, 2013 | 0 Comments
Jataun Austin helps her son Jeremiah try on a uniform sweater at Donald’s Uniform in St. Paul Aug. 24. Jeremiah will be a kindergartener at Ascension School in Minneapolis. Dianne Towalski / The Catholic Spirit

Jataun Austin helps her son Jeremiah try on a uniform sweater at Donald’s Uniform in St. Paul Aug. 24. Jeremiah will be a kindergartener at Ascension School in Minneapolis. Dianne Towalski / The Catholic Spirit

When students and staff return to Ascension School in Minneapolis this fall, they will see a lot of unfamiliar faces.

The school has accepted 50 new students for the coming year and is opening two additional classrooms, said Principal Dorwatha Woods.

The students are coming in large part as the result of the school’s outreach to its north Minneapolis neighborhood with the aim of raising awareness about the school and what it has to offer.

One of those new faces is Jeremiah Austin, a kindergartener who will be attending Ascension thanks to an outreach relationship with Shiloh Temple, a Pentecostal church in the neighborhood.

Jeremiah’s mother, Jataun, was at church one Sunday, she said, when her bishop made an announcement encouraging parents to consider the school because its values align with what they believe.

“So I gave Ms. Woods a call and I just felt like she was so warm and welcoming, and I liked her spirit,” Austin said.

Helping local children

The effort to bring new students to the school began about three years ago when Woods began working with the Northside Achievement Zone, a collaboration of organizations and schools partnering with families in north Minneapolis. They help children graduate from high school so they can go to college and leave behind the multigenerational poverty that exists in the neighborhood.

“My idea has always been that we need to look in and around our community for new students,” Woods said. But before engaging more students, she wanted to make sure that instruction is the very best it can be.

She worked with NAZ, attending administrator trainings each month and getting instruction from the University of Washington on effective teaching. “So we have trained ourselves to know what it looks like,” she said.

She took her training back and shared it with her teachers and now feels the school is ready to welcome more students.

Becoming a NAZ anchor partner school was the next step. It is now one of eight elementary and high schools that are part of the organization. NAZ family coaches, who give families one-on-one support and refer them to services they need, now can recommend Ascension School to parents they serve.

“They have brought groups of parents on tours [of the school] and the parents are signing their kids up,” Woods said. “We are giving them, through NAZ, the wrap-around services they need to be successful in school.”

Educational partners

Last spring, Woods reached out to the Northside Child Development Center — a NAZ anchor partner and program of Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

“One of Northside’s major goals is to provide kids with a solid early childhood educational experience to make sure that they are ready when they get to kindergarten,” said Keith Kozerski, director of Catholic Charities Children’s Services. “So it’s really important for us that we help parents identify solid educational partners to continue the work that we’ve done up to that point. We really see Ascension as a solid partner and a good choice that some parents didn’t even realize was a choice for them.”

Some Ascension teachers have participated in the center’s parent enrichment nights. Woods said she presented a mini-seminar on preparing children for kindergarten.

“They have been a great partner — they’re committed to the neighborhood and the kids from the neighborhood,” Kozerski said. “They really take a holistic look at the child and the family.”

A team of Ascension eighth-graders have visited the Northside Child Development Center weekly to spend time reading to the children.

“Our eighth-graders are trained to be role models for the younger students, so this was another opportunity for them to use those skills,” Woods said.

“I know that their mission is to really foster academic excellence,” Austin said. “And that’s what my values are and what I want for my son.”

Aim Higher Foundation provides essential aid

Funds from the Aim Higher Foundation — a non-profit organization that provides tuition assistance to families in need that send their children to a Catholic school in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis — help several families at Ascension School with the cost of tuition.

Last year, 26 students at the school received scholarships of $400 each. “It’s a wonderful help for these families,” said Dorwatha Woods, the school’s principal.

Aim Higher funds are helping some of the students who are attending Ascension for the first time this school year as a result of the school’s outreach efforts in the north Minneapolis neighborhood.

“The fun thing about Aim Higher is that they’re not just saying, ‘We’re going to give money to this child.’ They’re saying, ‘We want this child to achieve,’” said Woods. “That’s just a great combination, that they have the expectation behind it that the children need to achieve.”

For more information on the Aim Higher Foundation, visit

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Category: Back to School