By Dave Jolivet
FALL RIVER, Mass. — There was a time when back-to-school preparations for teachers and students focused on the 3 Rs; reading, ’ritin’ and ’rithmatic. And in the case of parochial schools, the 4 Rs, — the addition of religion.
But 15 years into the 21st century, school curricula and preparing for the new year has vastly changed.
The Catholic schools in the Diocese of Fall River are very much part of the cutting edge academic world.
“We are elated about the school year ahead,” Dr. Michael S. Griffin, superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Fall River told The Anchor. “We have been working toward the highest levels of academic opportunities for our youngsters, all while guiding them in the faith and in the teachings of the Catholic Church.”
Most diocesan schools opened this week, but faculties, staffs and administrations have long been at work preparing for the new academic year.
In addition to upgrading some of the curricula and renovations of some facilities, the diocese has also added three new principals.
Jeanine Cambra is the new principal at Espirito Santo School in Fall River. “Jeanine is a fine asset to ES,” said Griffin. “She’s been a teacher and in administration for 14 years at the Montessori School in Westport, and was a reading specialist in the public school systems.”
At St. Mary’s School in Taunton, Elyse Sackal, a former teacher at St. Mary-Sacred Heart School in North Attleboro, and a co-chairman of the English Language Arts committee, takes the helm.
St. Mary’s School in Mansfield welcomes Matt Bourque as principal. Bourque was a former teacher and assistant principal at All Saints Catholic School in New Bedford.
“We’re very pleased that Elyse and Matt are graduates of the Providence Alliance for Catholic Teachers run at Providence College,” added Griffin.
According to its website, PACT is “a unique teacher education program that invites recent graduates to contribute two years of service to young people as teachers in Catholic schools in New England.
“PACT members teach classes in language arts, English literature, British and American literature, history, biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics, Spanish, religious studies, and other subject areas. They also coach sports teams, act as advisors to students, and are leaders of school retreats.”
“Each year four or so of our teachers attend the program,” Griffin told The Anchor. “In the last dozen years or so, more than 60 of our teachers have attended.”
Christopher Keavy, Head of School at St. John Paul II High School in Hyannis, was named to the New England Association of Schools and Colleges Commission on Independent Schools Board of Trustees, which oversees accreditation of Catholic and other private schools in New England.
“We’re proud to say that the Diocese of Fall River is the only diocese in New England, with the exception of Connecticut, that has every Catholic school accredited by NEASC,” added Griffin.
Another staff addition is Heidi Kuliga becoming the new assistant principal at All Saints Catholic School in New Bedford.
Griffin said the academic foundation of the diocesan school system is based on the STEM system — science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. The goal is to encourage students to gain an awareness, understanding and interest in these topics.
“These are topics that need to be strengthened in students across the country,” Griffin explained.
“Our teachers and principals are being trained by other teachers and principals experienced in STEM methodology,” he continued. “We bring together teachers at the same grade levels to maximize the success of using the STEM system.
“This year we had 40 teachers and principals who attended workshops facilitated by teachers and principals well-acclimated to the method.”
Griffin said the teachers and principals come away with the tools and materials necessary to implement the method right away in their curricula.
“STEM is geared toward thinking and reasoning,” Griffin said, “not just learning something without understanding it.”
The diocese is partnering with the UMass Dartmouth department of STEM and Teacher Development.
Equally important in the eyes of the diocesan Education Department, is the religious aspect to a student’s growth and development.
“We have a religion committee, comprised of priests and school faculty that is looking into revising religion standards for diocesan schools,” Griffin told The Anchor. “We’re looking particularly at grades pre-k through eight,” he added. “The high schools already follow a program approved by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. The religion standards in the lower grades are geared to 21st-century approaches; engaging the students in thinking about their faith; what the Church does and why, and understanding the teachings and reflecting and deepening their faith.
“The committee meets regularly with the Education Department, and with Bishop Edgar M. da Cunha, S.D.V.”
Griffin told The Anchor that some diocesan schools anticipate a growth in enrollment. “After a decline, it’s now coming back,” he said of some schools. “It’s great to see it growing back.”
Facility-wise, Coyle and Cassidy High School and Middle School in Taunton had a biology lab makeover, and Bishop Feehan High School in Attleboro saw the construction of a Wellness Center with new locker rooms and exercise areas.
Other particular changes and/or additions at diocesan schools include:
— The introduction of a new “Leadership Studies and Practicum,” course at St. JPII High School, that involves the examination of leadership theories, practice and strategies, from Jesus of Nazareth to contemporary leadership paradigms.
— The world languages program at Coyle and Cassidy High School and Middle School, where all seventh-grade students will now have the opportunity to have a full year of a world language, giving them exposure to French, Portuguese, Spanish and Mandarin Chinese. All eighth-grade students will complete their first year of a high school language.
— Bishop Feehan High School is offering four years of Mandarin Chinese; and is continuing to offer a course in American Sign Language Study, which it has for the last seven years. The Attleboro school also offered its first “Shamrock Leadership Institute,” earlier this summer. It’s a derivative of the diocesan Christian Leadership Institute, which helps train young men and women leadership skills to be used in the Church and society at large.
— Bishop Stang High School in North Dartmouth, in response to Pope Francis’ declaration of a Year of Mercy, has designated its school year: “Be witnesses to God’s mercy.” Bonnie Harlow, the cellist from the New Bedford Symphony Orchestra, will provide direct instruction to the school’s string instrument students. At the last commencement exercise, Bishop da Cunha blessed a “Vocations Crucifix,” that Stang families will use throughout the year to pray for vocations in the Diocese of Fall River. Each week the crucifix will go to the home of a Stang family, and each day at the school, students, faculty and staff will recite a prayer for vocations.
— St. Margaret’s School in Buzzards Bay is continuing to expand its STEM activities with new learning experiences, like the space-balloon launch project completed late last school year by the fifth-graders there. Students released balloons configured with a payload box with a GPS, two cameras and a heat pack, so the instruments wouldn’t freeze in the upper atmosphere.
— Holy Name School in Fall River is continuing its association with the Lloyd Center for the Environment in South Dartmouth; new after-school activities; and continuation of the Bullying Prevention Teams.
— Holy Trinity School in Fall River has added classroom aids in every grade.
— Espirito Santo School in Fall River is adding technology integration classes where every teacher will work to integrate technology into lessons with visits to the computer lab. Also new is the availability of Portuguese classes for students in kindergarten through eight.
— St. Stanislaus School in Fall River is adding the usage of Chrome Books, moving the students out of the lab and integrating technology right in the classroom. The school will also mark its 110th anniversary during this academic year.
— Celebrating 85 years is St. Michael School in Fall River, with a very active parish participation that’s been ongoing for many years. Many of the current students’ parents are St. Michael’s graduates.
— All Saints Catholic School in New Bedford is also going the Chrome Book route to allow for greater use of Google Apps for Education. Textbooks with online components for students in grades five and six in language arts and social studies, and students in grades five-eight in science, will now be offered.
— St. James-St. John School in New Bedford is offering a new pre-school program to promote school readiness in a safe, nurturing, and engaging environment. Children will be taught Christian values as well as interpersonal skills, mathematics and literacy skills in age-appropriate ways.
— Holy Family-Holy Name School in New Bedford is holding a “Holy Olympics,” playing off its 2015-16 theme, “Training to be Champions of Christ.”
— St. Mary-Sacred Heart School in North Attleboro has adopted a new science series for students in grades six-eight. The lower grades will adopt the series in the future. The school added new science tables and stools. And most teachers will have new iPads with an interactive projector with Apple TV for mirroring the iPads in the classroom.
So much for the old 3Rs, rote learning methods.