In college town, St. Dominic touts faith and formation

| January 19, 2016 | 0 Comments
Preschooler Madilyn Terpstra looks up from her coloring work at St. Dominic School in Northfield. Bob Zyskowski/The Catholic Spirit

Preschooler Madilyn Terpstra looks up from her coloring work at St. Dominic School in Northfield. Bob Zyskowski/The Catholic Spirit

Forty miles south of the Twin Cities in Northfield, between St. Olaf College on one side of the Cannon River and Carleton College on the other, a small Catholic grade school is “holding strong” and “overall doing well.”

That’s Vicki Kalina Marvin’s analysis of St. Dominic School.

She loves the place.

Although she’s in her 10th year as the school’s principal, she’s spent a good portion of her life there.

“I graduated from here, taught here for five years, and I’ve been a parent of students here,” Marvin said. “One of my former teachers is still teaching here, and one of my former students is a teacher here now. It’s an important place to me.”

On a cloudy fall day, sixth-grader Olivia Hubers and fifth-grader Charlie Monahan — members of the elite Student Action Leadership Team — comfortably tell a visitor about their school.

“We get to learn about God,” Hubers said. “It’s a great opportunity for us to learn about our faith.”

Teacher Janet Sletten, in her 38th year at St. Dominic, talks with pride about the school’s reading enrichment program. “It’s enrichment at both ends of the spectrum,” she pointed out. “Kids have needs at both ends.”

Another of the school’s strengths comes in the form of volunteers such as Kim Bobert, who continues to help in the school library although she no longer has children attending St. Dominic.

“When my son left to go to the public high school, I stayed,” Bobert said with a smile.

She’s been volunteering for 10 years. She thinks so highly of the school “because of the relationships kids form with the teachers and their classmates,” she said. “Even today, my son’s best friends are the guys he went to school with at St. Dominic.”

Enrollment challenges

The rootedness that drew Marvin back to serve as
St. Dominic’s principal — as well as her leadership in incorporating a focus on student progress throughout the year, not just at report card time — do not come without a healthy sense of realism.

Keeping a small Catholic school strong isn’t easy, Marvin acknowledged.

“We battle enrollment all the time,” she said. “People don’t look to Catholic schools to be a safe place or a better education than a public school anymore.”

To work on enrollment and retention, “we compete differently,” she said. “We have to focus on the faith piece and character development.

“There’s a focus on education in Northfield,” she added, nodding to residents of the college town.

St. Dominic’s small size allows for a certain intimacy, she said.

“It gives us the ability to get to know kids and be flexible in caring and providing different things in ways larger schools can’t,” she said. “The difference here is that you know everybody has common values. Our core values are shared, we have the same beliefs, and that’s across our entire community.”

Although St. Dominic’s enrollment has gone up and down over the years, this year the school gained eight students, raising enrollment to 131 in kindergarten through eighth grade. The preschool is nearly full with children from several new families, which Marvin sees as a good sign for coming years.

But the cost of tuition is definitely a barrier for some families, she said. “Money is a big challenge for people. When you have more than one child, it adds up. It’s a significant payment,” she admitted.

The budget, then, is another challenge. Salaries were frozen this year, and they were already about 75 percent of salaries in the area’s public school systems, Marvin said.

“We ask a lot,” she said. “Everyone takes on multiple roles here, and that wears people out — parents and teachers.

“We’re always trying to pull in dollars without asking our parents for it,” Marvin said. “Even with fundraisers, we’re asking from the same pool of families.”

Thankfully, St. Dominic’s staff is committed and grateful for the other benefits of being part of a supportive community, Marvin said.

“I’m lucky as an administrator,” she added. “I have teachers who give their all every day.

“Sometimes things are hard here, but we do hard things together, and that’s why it’s so rewarding.”

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Category: Catholic Education