Sixth-grader Ervin Mendoza loves the new Chromebook computer he uses at St. Cecilia School and Academy in St. Louis. He was busy in social studies class in early February working on a presentation on prominent African Americans in American history.
“You can take it home and do your homework. It helps you learn better,” the sixth-grader said.
Leticia Martinez chose to have her three grade-school children learning at home because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Prior to this school year, the family had one computer. Now the three St. Cecilia students each have a computer. And third-grader Keily, who initially struggled with technology, now thrives with it and shows a creative talent.
When the pandemic hit in the spring of 2020, schools transitioned to virtual learning. It quickly became evident that more infrastructure and technology were needed at two archdiocesan elementary schools, St. Cecilia and St. Louis Catholic Academy, to provide the best virtual learning experience.
The schools received 367 new Chromebooks and iPads by the start of school in the fall. They were gifts of individual donors, foundations — including board members of the Today and Tomorrow Educational Foundation — and the Office of Catholic Education and Formation.
Pete Cerone, senior director of advancement with Today and Tomorrow Educational Foundation, credited the donors and school leaders for “significant progress offsetting the inequity in devices as well as creating processes for better management of our technology and devices.”
Last spring, St. Cecilia and St. Louis Catholic Academy had enough devices for one for each of their families for remote learning. But, “we knew that we had to address the need for families with more than one student enrolled at St. Cecilia and St. Louis Catholic Academy,” Cerone said. “Our goal was to provide every single student their own device.”
Michael Dierberg, chairman of FB Corporation, the parent company of First Bank, who is a Today and Tomorrow Educational Foundation board member, said that “ the investment we are making will not only serve the students and schools during the pandemic, but will also pave the way for schools in under-resourced communities to utilize technology to complement in-class instruction long into the future.”
Emily Roth, principal of St. Cecilia School, started her first day as principal of St. Cecilia School on April 1, just as the pandemic hit. She worked with the previous principal for a month before that, planning for a potential shut-down of the school.
Roth stressed a framework for continuous learning and a connection between home and school. She learned that the school had a couple of carts of shared devices for students’ digital learning. “It’s hard to count on the devices’ availability when they are shared across multiple classrooms,” she said. “I knew we had to go 1-1, meaning one device per student. That became my number-one goal.”
Even if there wasn’t a pandemic, Roth saw the need. She worked with the Office of Catholic Education and Formation and Today and Tomorrow to secure the donations and school funding to meet the need, including providing hot spots for about 15 families without internet service.
Professional development opportunities throughout the summer and school year helped teachers and instructional aides become comfortable with the technology.
At the beginning of this school year, half the students attended in-person and the rest virtual. Now it’s about 75 percent in-person. Each Wednesday is a virtual day, which prepares students and educators for possible disruptions. Class quarantines occurred a couple times, and the learning was uninterrupted.
The school prepares students academically, spiritually, emotionally and in other ways, Roth said. The technology helps students connect these ways, praying together virtually, for example.
St. Cecilia decided against just livestreaming a class because “we wanted to think about that virtual learning experience to be as interactive as possible to really increase student engagement,” Roth said. Various computer programs enable that to occur in virtual and in-person learning.
Eighth-graders lead morning prayer and announcements that are uploaded to the school’s Facebook page, with each class viewing it. Sometimes students will pray through a song, with the words on their devices.
“I celebrate the resilience of our community, of our staff, of our students, of our families, of the Office of Catholic Education and Formation,” Roth said. “We have come together to do amazing things with student learning this year. That’s our theme this year — A Community of Resilience: Moving Forward in Faith, Hope and Love Even in the Midst of Fear” (Matthew 18:20).
Continuing Josh’s concern for others
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Josh Seidel Memorial Foundation looked for a new project to fund, one still related to its basic mission, and found a match with the 1-1 technology effort at two archdiocesan elementary schools.
The foundation focuses on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) efforts, but last spring, the opportunity to help schools in underserved communities that lacked enough technology was too good to pass up. “It just made total sense,” said Dan Hefley, one of the foundation board members.
Seidel, who attended Ascension School, Christian Brothers College High School and the University of Missouri-Columbia, died in a workplace accident in 2014 at age 34. An engineer and entrepreneur, he was co-owner of Caliber Cast Stone. A friend to many, his motto could be summed up as “Work hard, play hard, help others.”
Remembered for his character, morals, sense of honor and responsibility, his legacy has continued. The idea for the foundation came when friends and family members came together to memorialize how he enriched the lives of others.
The foundation is made up of all volunteers, with all donations going to programs with the exception of small fees such as for insurance to cover an event. Additional donors are welcome, as are opportunities to fund projects related to the foundation’s mission.
For information, visit Facebook @joshseidelmemorial foundation.
Individuals and foundations who invested in the 1-1 technology effort at St. Cecilia and St. Louis Catholic Academy:
• Mike & Rita Mooney/Footwear Unlimited
• Mike Dierberg/First Bank
• Nancy Werner’s Ministry Team of the Archdiocese of St. Louis
• Catholic Health Association
• Norman J. Stupp Foundation
• Society of Sacred Heart
• School Sisters of Notre Dame
• Horizon Housing
• Josh Seidel Memorial Foundation
• Cardinals Care
• Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet