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Local schools stronger than ever, local Catholic educators say

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SAN DIEGO — Catholic educators across the San Diego Diocese share their stories of how their schools are emerging stronger than ever after coping with two years of the pandemic. Their accounts reveal tireless work, an innovative spirit and an unshakeable faith that lifted their students and families.

Stella Maris Academy
The accomplishment I am most proud of this school year is not really my accomplishment, but the accomplishments and achievements of my outstanding students, who have been bringing the brightest rays of sunshine to Stella Maris Academy each and every day.

These kindergarten students have been resilient, positive and enthusiastic.  They were able to maintain their passion and love of learning all year long.  My students have flourished and grown, despite having to navigate some unexpected obstacles, like mask-wearing, quarantines and COVID tests, to name a few.

These incredible kids were ready and willing to take on everything that this year brought us, and they did it with excitement, kindness and respect.  They made every single moment of our time together full of fun and friendship.

My students may only be 5 or 6 years old, but they are wise beyond their years with the patience, flexibility, and grace that they have shown throughout a challenging year.

— Whitney George, kindergarten teacher

Cathedral Catholic High School
I knew coming into this school year that Day 1 would be the most important first day of my career.

We were returning to the classroom after five quarters of online/hybrid learning. There would be sophomores stepping foot on campus who had never physically been to the “Home of the Dons.” The last time our upperclassmen were all together was when they were freshmen.

We were at a pivotal moment, and I had to get it right. My vocation as a Catholic educator is to make my students feel known and loved, not just by me, but by God the Father. So, I sat down the week before school started and wrote seven promises to my students for our school year. These promises are posted at the front of our classroom and I use them to guide my instruction and relationships daily. The poster reads:

This Year, I Promise To …
1) Listen to You and care about You.

2) Take everything day by day and be flexible to Your needs.
3) Spend time outside with You.
4) Play lots of games and laugh with You.
5) Help You relax and provide a calm and peaceful place to learn.
6) Encourage and love You.
7) Teach You math. 100%

I interact with many groups of students on campus: the kids in my math classes, whom I have the honor of teaching my favorite academic subject; the kids in Dons for Life, whom I have been entrusted to lead as the advisor of the pro-life movement on campus; and the varsity baseball team, which I proudly serve as “The Voice of the Dons” at home games. Because of the uncertainty of the last two years, we are all craving authentic connection and flexibility.

I’m in my 15th year of teaching, but this year has been the year I’ve grown the most as an educator. Like raindrops rolling down a window, no two take the same path. But they all come together to nourish the ground and grow new life.

It’s springtime now — my favorite season — and I am so grateful to be a part of the Cathedral Catholic community. We’ve been through so much together: navigating the pandemic; the deaths of co-workers Tammy Niu, Mario Fierro and Zak Myers; learning all the while how to keep moving forward despite the challenges and grief. There’s no place I’d rather be than at Cathedral as a Catholic educator. Roll Dons!

— Christine LaPorte, math teacher

St. Katharine Drexel Academy
When I think of the 2021-2022 school year, the word I think of most is growth. We have seen wonderful and sustainable growth in our enrollment this year, as we continue to welcome new families to the St. Katharine Drexel Academy community that feel strongly about our mission, vision, faith and innovative pedagogical approach.

We’ve seen growth academically, in students gaining confidence, taking ownership, and making up for lost time. We’ve seen growth socially, in students being re-educated in navigating friendships, sportsmanship, and practicing inclusivity, not only in our school, but as global citizens of this city, country and world.

We’ve also seen growth in the strength of our community. We all adhered to and respected community health guidelines out of care for one another (and continue to do so) while also re-instituting safe and fun community events that have strengthened school culture.

Lastly, I think we have seen the most growth in our faith. Our faith is what has anchored us through the last few challenging years, and preserved and guided us through our challenging decisions and our most joyful moments.

Many of our Catholic schools boasted about our resilience and flexibility to open for in-person and online learning in the Fall of 2020. This year, it was clear how many academic, social and emotional deficits children experienced from a year and a half of fragmented schooling.

As we entered this school year, we were ecstatic to cautiously add back some of the activities that make school feel normal for our students, such as mixing grade levels for STEM instruction and Faith Hour, and that reinforce the social and academic opportunities our school provides them. It’s almost as if we didn’t realize the impact of something as simple as being able to see a child smile, until we could no longer see it.

Despite this year being full of challenges, I believe it has been one of our school’s most formative years. It has confirmed our identity and existence and the necessity of the work we do. The foundation has been laid, the work has been done and now we celebrate this growth as we look to the future, where we expect it to continue.

I’ve never been prouder of our school and look forward to seeing where the future takes us!

— Kelly Bonde, principal

St. Charles School
March 13, 2020, was the start of a course at St. Charles that none of us could have imagined. That Friday afternoon, the diocesan Office for Schools informed all schools that we were to move all students to distance learning.

Understanding that this was an enormous undertaking, the office requested that our schools be ready to offer distance learning by the following Thursday. At the end of the school day the entire faculty stayed late into the day. They worked with one another, supporting each other. They formulated a game plan.  They left the school that evening with everything they might need to successfully teach from home.

All their hard work and determination was evident when every student, in every grade level, began attending distance-learning classes not on Thursday as requested by the Schools Office but on Monday.  Our students did not lose even one instructional day.

This determination continued into the following school year when we welcomed our students with the option of in-person or online learning.  Our teachers now had to develop a new skill set, hybrid learning.

The joy of having students back on campus was immense. The responsibility of keeping them safe and healthy was even bigger. The COVID guidelines we adopted were rigorous. The cooperation of parents, students and staff, through the two years of having students on our campus during a pandemic, has led to our never having to close the school, nor a single classroom, for quarantine due to exposure to the virus. Those of us that work in schools know that is an extraordinary accomplishment.

We knew there would be a loss of learning during the pandemic. What surprised and concerned us even more was the emotional toll it has taken on our students, our families and ourselves. We began meeting and discussing how we could further support our students in their social-emotional learning.

New behavior and discipline issues surfaced. It was clear to us, as a staff, that our lives had all been greatly altered and so too should our approach to discipline. In most situations, we have been addressing issues using Restorative Justice Practices, which empower students to resolve conflicts on their own.

The greatest achievement of the past two years is that we have been able to offer a safe place where our students can come to school to learn and to heal. This would not have been possible, without the monumental hard work and dedication of our staff in support of our students’ academic and emotional growth.

– Sylvia Benning, principal

St. Gregory the Great Catholic School
This has certainly been a year to remember — an unprecedented time of challenge as we journeyed through the COVID-19 pandemic together. Our Guardian spirit at St. Gregory the Great Catholic School could not be masked as we experienced Zoom, temperature checks, wearing face masks, modified quarantine, in-school antigen COVID-19 testing, and social distancing.

Indeed, many of the challenges we faced yielded multiple blessings, which made our school community stronger and more unified. God’s grace overflowed, providing us with courage, resilience, stamina and hope.

Upon reflection, the teachers at St. Gregory the Great agree that the most challenging aspect of the past two years has been making a social-emotional connection with current and many new students through the barriers of computer screens and face masks. They heroically overcame this challenge with abundant measures of love, care, patience, innovation and energy.

Our greatest joy was to return to school in-person following the COVID closure, and eventually have the option to unmask at school to enjoy the beautiful smiles and facial expressions of our students.

Maintaining and strengthening connectivity between home, school and parish became a priority this year. It was our blessing to provide resources for our families to support the establishment of a sacred space in the home. Bridging the gap between home and school was tested with the suspension of parent volunteer activity at school.

Enhancing our communication methods became crucial in connecting our parents to school and classroom life. Publishing our weekly Guardian Newsletter digitally allowed us to include videos of classroom and school events and hyperlinks to online resources. The nature of distance learning during the pandemic caused a shift to digital platforms like Google Classroom and Seesaw, which our teachers continue to use to support student learning to this day.

Adding live-streamed liturgies to our Mass schedule allowed us to increase our celebration of the Eucharist from bi-monthly to weekly — a major blessing since our church and school campuses are separated by a significant distance.

As we journey through the final weeks of this school year, it is exciting to see the return of many events, such as Grandparents Day, the Father/Daughter Dance and Mother/Son Night, Field Day, the faculty vs. eighth grade kickball game, re-opening our Student Store, and establishing School Safety Patrol. Adding the Spring Concert (themed “Beatlemania”) and Sports Recognition Night to our May events calendar makes this year even more special.

It is said that “God never gives us more than we can handle.” Our community’s faith, prayer, innovation and resilience are the beacons that have allowed St. Gregory the Great Catholic School to triumph during unprecedented times. We remain “Guardian Strong!”

— Maeve O’Connell, principal

Good Shepherd School
As I reflect on these past two years of teaching at Good Shepherd during the pandemic, I feel grateful for the many accomplishments we have achieved as a school community.  The overall achievement I feel most proud of for our school is maintaining a strong sense of belonging and community among the students and families.

This sense of community is built upon the three core values of faith, hope and love mentioned in Paul’s letter to the Romans. The Good Shepherd faculty and staff found strength in our faith, believed in hope for better times, and nurtured love for each other and the school as the foundation to a strong sense of community.

Our faith, through the gifts of the Holy Spirit, guided us to help all students recognize that they belong to one faith community. This faith helped us be flexible and to create and update guidelines as needed.

As the school and parish communities are integral to each other, the students were fortunate to celebrate Mass using the outdoor altar that the parish constructed in early April 2020. Bringing camping chairs and jackets if needed, the students and teachers enjoyed weekly outdoor Mass and special celebrations such as the Missionary Childhood Association Mass and First Communion with the faith-formation students.  We were, and still are, one community in faith, whether celebrating Mass inside or outside of the church building.

We relied on hope in knowing that our school and faith community will work together to overcome challenges. The seventh- and eighth-graders, especially, held onto hope with the return of many activities due to improved COVID conditions.

I was thrilled to organize a “make-up” of the sixth-grade camp in Julian that had been canceled for two consecutive years. The older students experienced the community bond as they worked together to bus the tables, sing campfire songs, or achieve their goal on the high ropes challenge. With the unexpected gift of snow mid-week, the students and I felt renewed in our hope in the strength and commitment of the school community.

Our love for each other and for the school served as the foundation of this strong sense of community. The students and staff reflected the love and respect for each other through following the many health and sanitation procedures.

The teachers reflected the love of our students and learning as we used new websites and technologies to teach in class or on Zoom or both groups at the same time!  Since many Good Shepherd families chose distance learning for the children, the teachers adapted curriculum, learned strategies, and underwent training to show their love for and meet the needs of all learners.

Our Good Shepherd school faculty and staff relied on faith, hope, and love to maintain and nurture a strong sense of community despite all the challenges during the pandemic.  I feel our loving and amazing community will come out of this pandemic with renewed confidence and hope for a brighter future for our children!

— Teresa McKinney, middle school teacher

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