Students in Barb Ryan's eighth-grade language arts class at South City Catholic Academy are taking "The Hobbit" to another level.
The class was reading the adventurous novel by J. R. R. Tolkien. Relating to the book, Ryan challenged the students to think more about a hero's journey by researching other characters, using their Chromebook laptops, and creating their own hero.
Ideas rang out as Ryan sought input on the characteristics of a hero and names of other heroes who had an unusual birth.
The class is one example of how the school — a new partnership model school that opened this school year — focuses on helping students become faith-filled problem solvers by developing their critical thinking skills, collaborative skills and the ability to develop solutions. "It's awkward to sit and struggle with a concept," said Laura Hirschman, principal of South City Catholic Academy. "But it's with that struggling and self-discovery that they can make some gains academically."
Eighth-grader Helen Schiller, speaking of the class and the newly formed school, said she likes being challenged. "I really like writing class," she said, citing a project in which she wrote a short story in answer to whether she'd rather have an elf or a snowman as a friend. She argued that elves are superior to snowmen.
Michael Baudendistel, a seventh-grader, said the challenging academics "help me grow, and I can feel myself getting better" and more confident.
Timmy Kappel, a sixth-grader, came from Our Lady of Sorrows School, a move that was exciting but a bit nerve-wracking for him to meet new friends and teachers. It only took a few weeks to adjust, he said, and he especially likes the math class. "There's new opportunities for me here," he said.
Plans for South City Catholic Academy began in earnest last year, with Our Lady of Sorrows and St. Joan of Arc parishes teaming up with the archdiocesan Catholic Education Office to form a partnership model school. The partnership model showcases a collaboration to ensure that schools are vibrant, available and affordable. The new school is based at the former St. Joan of Arc School (called the Pernod campus). The school uses Our Lady of Sorrows facilities (the Rhodes campus) for retreats, a mother-son dance, a Christmas program and other activities. Priests from both parishes alternate celebrating Masses at the academy on Wednesdays and holy days.
Rebecca Kalhorn, a parent of a fourth-grader and second-grader at South City Catholic Academy, is impressed with the "outstanding and passionate" faculty. "I could not be happier with their classroom instruction and any teacher they interact with," she said.
Her children formerly attended Our Lady of Sorrows School, and she admitted that "change is always hard. But it's amazing how these two communities have come together in a way that is beneficial to our students and the community as a whole. Last year there was the pain of saying good-bye and we didn't know what we were saying hello to. But now we do know, and I'm very pleased."
Faith formation provides a solid foundation. Every homeroom has chosen a patron to represent their grade level. Students researched the patron, made a mosaic banner representing the patron and are giving presentations to the rest of the school.
The eighth-graders, for example, chose the School Sisters of Notre Dame for their contribution to education in St. Louis.
"It's fun to learn about our faith that way," said eighth-grader Jonah Evans.
Margaret Karl, director of city Catholic elementary schools, said the project gives the students "a fresh start" with their Catholic formation." Hirschman said that because the school doesn't have an association with a single parish and the school is not named after a patron, "we felt strongly about embedding as many (patrons) into this charism as we could."
The responsibility for planning and participating in the all-school Masses rotates among the grades. They also have occasional Masses just for their grade level. Pam Miller serves as the school's faith formation and liturgy director.
Students are invited to attend Mass in their uniforms the first Sunday of each month at Our Lady of Sorrows Church, where they assist with greeting people and carry the gifts in the offertory.
A developmental reading assessment was conducted at the beginning of school year which provided a specific reading level as well as a focus for reading instruction.
"It gives so you much more information about children as readers," Hirschman said. "Instead of thinking of students as on or above grade level, it segments it so you get a true picture of where students are falling academically."
The goal is to have a challenging, enriching program in which students feel the rigor, Karl said.
South City Catholic Academy adopted standards-based grading which gives students more feedback on their progress. Instead of an overall grade for math, for example, it breaks it down into skills so students know strengths and weaknesses. "Long gone are the days when students think they're not very good at math," Hirschman said. Instead, they realize there are specific tasks they're good at and others they need to master.
Helen Schiller, the eighth-grader who wrote about elves in her writing class, said at first she was unsure about the new academy school. "But it's grown into something good," she said. "And I think a lot of schools should adopt this model."
>> Patrons of South City Catholic Academy
Eighth grade — School Sisters of Notre Dame
Seventh grade — Sister Mary Antona Ebo, FSM
Sixth grade — St. John Paul II
Fifth grade — Mother Odilia Burger
Fourth grade — St. Rose Philippine Duchesne
Third grade — St. Louis, King of France
Second grade — St. Tarcisius (an altar boy during the ferocious anti-Christian persecution of the Roman emperor Valerian who is a patron of first communicants)
First grade — St. Aloysius Gonzaga
kindergarten — St. Elizabeth Ann Seton
Junior kindergarten — St. Therese of Lisieux
>> Technology and more
A new addition to South City Catholic Academy is 96 Chromebook laptop computers. The younger students are using ipads in centers in their classrooms. Updated SMARTBoards are in each classroom.
After-school programs are rolling as well — Mad Science; Bellarmine Speech League; Girls on the Run; Art Club; Improv, Mindfulness and Well-Being; Clavius Project, a robotics program with high school mentors; and more.
A Junior Achievement Program has been operating in primary grades, Opera on the Go performed at the school and a partnership established through Arts and Education involved seventh- and eighth-graders.
"It's a full, enriching and faith-filled program for the students in this school," said Margaret Karl, archdiocesan director of city Catholic schools, who visits the school at least once a week. "You can feel the positive energy."
A School Community Association formed with subcommittees of fundraising, community-building and parent education. It's open to parents, community members and parishioners. OASIS volunteers also come to help with reading.
The school, which opened with 256 students in junior kindergarten through eighth grade, includes a board of directors, which works with the community, budgets and more. South City Catholic Academy is a partnership model school, a collaboration between Our Lady of Sorrows Parish, St. Joan of Arc Parish and archdiocesan Catholic Education Office. As a partnership school, the archdiocese is a partner on decisions regarding governance, leadership, curriculum, programs and personnel. The school stresses academic excellence and strong Catholic formation for children; affordability for families and parishes in accessible locations; and the efficient and effective use of resources, with educational and religious educational programs of similar quality in all schools.
Also new is a Student Ambassador program. Students applied for the positions. Helen Schiller, an eighth-grader, said being selected "means the teachers see something in those they've chosen to be Ambassadors, and we can be a leader."
An open house, with the ambassadors as the main tour hosts, was planned after a 10:30 a.m. Mass Sunday, Jan. 28, at St. Joan of Arc Church.