Three urban Catholic schools partner for long-term success

| January 25, 2017 | 0 Comments

Kindergarten teacher Christina Robb works with student Samira Crews at St. Peter Claver Catholic School in St. Paul Jan. 19. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Three urban Catholic elementary schools in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis have combined their governance and operations in hopes of increasing their long-term viability and improving academic outcomes for around 480 students.

The kindergarten through eighth-grade schools — Ascension Catholic School in north Minneapolis, St. John Paul II Catholic Preparatory School in northeast Minneapolis and St. Peter Claver Catholic School in St. Paul — comprise Ascension Catholic Academy. With Ascension serving as the anchor school, its staff is responsible for managing daily operations of all three. Patricia Stromen, president of Ascension Catholic Academy, said that in the past several decades, Ascension has successfully served racially diverse low-income families while building community engagement. All three schools serve a high percentage of students who qualify for free and reduced lunch.

“Our hope is that we can really build on the strengths of all three schools to move into the future and find ways to — in a faith-based setting — build academic excellence and care for the whole child in our inner-city Catholic schools,” said Stromen, who has served as Ascension Church’s parish administrator since 2001.

The three schools benefit from developing best practices and sharing resources, allowing each school to maintain its own culture and identity, Stromen explained. The academy has an advancement department, finance department, human resources department and a board of directors to help govern its work. It plans to hire a chief academic officer. Father Dale Korogi, Ascension’s pastor, is the academy’s executive director. Father Kevin Finnegan, St. John Paul II school chaplain, and Father Erich Rutten, pastor of St. Peter Claver, serve as ex-officio members of the board.

With financial support from the GHR Foundation, the academy launched in August after discussions among the three schools. The GHR Foundation brought in national models and practices that could inform the schools’ leaders as they developed a system that would work for all three, Stromen said. All three schools depend on philanthropic gifts to operate, and they intend to continue development efforts in order to rely less on GHR funding and better engage their communities.

“It’s really a time of beginning and of planning for growth,” Stromen said.

Ascension Catholic Academy also worked with the archdiocesan Office for the Mission of Catholic Education. Director Jason Slattery said combining three Catholic grade schools under one governance model is a new venture in the archdiocese.

“What really made this project appealing was the reliance on the hard work and best practice of Ascension Catholic School and that ability to apply those base principles and infuse them into two other Catholic schools that are serving families in need,” he said. “There’s a real efficiency to that effort.”

Slattery gave a nod to longtime Ascension Principal Dorwatha Woods, who retired in 2016, for her leadership and for demonstrating what is possible with urban Catholic schools.

“Without Dorwatha’s tremendous contribution, we wouldn’t have any best practices to farm out,” he said.

Slattery noted it’s too early to determine whether the academy’s model will work for other Catholic schools in the archdiocese.

“I think [the academy] really has the opportunity to show us what’s possible,” he said. “And after some years of results, then we’ll understand what possibilities might exist.”

The academy has allowed St. Peter Claver Principal Terese Shimshock to focus her time and expertise on the students since academy staff members now work on the school’s budgeting, marketing and development.

“Knowing the academy has our backs on that, I can use my gifts to help the scholars, and that’s what we’re here for,” said Shimshock, who’s serving in her first year at the school.

She noted how the school, which first opened in 1950, has had an unstable past; it closed in 1989 and reopened in 2001, slowly making strides to boost funding and enrollment.

Now that she has the support of two other schools, her goal is to achieve 100 percent retention. The school is down about 30 students from last year.

She said having the partnership, and especially meeting weekly with the other principals and academy leadership, has been a great experience.

“What they’ve done in a short amount of time is phenomenal,” she said. “[The academy] brings hope for the future, and giving the students that safe place is very important.”

Stromen said inner-city Catholic schools have an important place in the fabric of Catholic education, given their location in neighborhoods with numerous disparities.

“Our Catholic inner-city schools have the opportunity through the experience of faith to lessen the achievement gap while also strengthening the whole child,” she said. “And if our inner cities are going to continue to move toward vitality, schools such as ours are going to be integral to that.”

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Category: Catholic Schools Week