Topeka school honored for its excellence

by Marc and Julie Anderson

TOPEKA — Although its roots run deep in the Topeka Catholic community, Mater Dei School has yet to complete its third year in operation. So, the school’s faculty, staff, students and parents were all pleasantly surprised when Mater Dei was named the 2008 School of Excellence by the Catholic Education Foundation (CEF).

It’s an honor that Mater Dei principal Andrea Hillebert and Michael Morrisey, executive director of the CEF, say is exciting and encouraging for both the school and the foundation.

The Catholic Education Foundation is a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing disadvantaged children with scholarship assistance to attend Catholic schools in the archdiocese. According to its mission statement, CEF believes “all children who seek a Catholic education, one that offers both quality and faith, should be given the opportunity in the name of Jesus.” Throughout its 11-year existence, CEF has provided more than $8 million in scholarships.

Currently, CEF serves 16 schools throughout the archdiocese, ranging from schools in Kansas City, Kan., and Topeka to schools in Axtell and Ottawa. For the 2008-09 school year, the CEF’s $1.3 million budget will provide approximately 1,100 scholarships, averaging $700 apiece.

Each year, schools supported by CEF are invited to compete for the title of the Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann Catholic Education Foundation School of Excellence; the winning school receives $2,500 worth of additional scholarship assistance, a plaque and a CEF flag for the school. Schools are evaluated in three main areas: faith formation, scholarship and service. Morrisey said this year’s winner impressed him by its accomplishments in all three areas, despite undergoing consolidation less than three years ago.

Officially established in July 2006 by the merger of the former Assumption and Holy Name schools, Mater Dei School first opened its doors to students in August 2006.

“It’s always difficult to consolidate schools,” said Morrisey. “But Andrea, in conjunction with [pastor] Father [Jon] Hullinger and the rest of the faculty and staff, has done a great job in making sure the morale is high, as well as making sure the Catholicity is what it’s supposed to be along with ensuring high standards of academic excellence.”

Hillebert points to several factors that helped shape Mater Dei School into what it is today, the CEF’s 2008 School of Excellence.

“First, we have a great faculty here, and we have had an almost nonexistent turnover rate,” said Hillebert. “That really helps in terms of mapping the curriculum, as teachers can anticipate the strengths, as well as weaknesses of the students when they arrive in their classrooms.”

Second, she said, “We have wonderful parents. You know, every time you talk about mergers, people become a little uneasy. Our parents are excited, and they have done a great job in focusing in on the positives of the consolidation.”

“Also,” she continued, “our students are fabulous. For them, combining schools was easy. They have blended well and quickly.

“Last, but not least, I’d also have to say we have a parish pastor, Father Jon Hullinger, who is very supportive of everything we do.”

When the winner of the School of Excellence Award was announced at the annual Gaudeamus (a Latin word meaning, “Let us rejoice”) dinner in Overland Park on Oct. 18, more than 700 people in attendance received a brief overview of Mater Dei’s accomplishments. A short presentation detailed ways the school demonstrates success in the areas of faith formation, scholarship and service. Examples ranged from the way the entire school stops at noon to pray the Angelus together to the way it set the record for student participation in the 2008 Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library Summer Reading Challenge.

Moreover, state assessment scores increased in every subject, resulting in 13 of 20 Standards of Excellence. Finally, last year alone, the students were able to adopt eight families for Christmas, as well as raise funds for sick children urgently in need of medical care.

When asked what the award meant to the school, Hillebert summarized it this way:

“It’s exciting for us as a school, because we’ve worked really hard to create something new here. . . . Of course, we had great foundations [the former schools], but we have worked really hard to create a new school and build a new tradition here. It’s nice to think someone else recognizes our efforts.”

For Morrisey, Mater Dei School is an example of a school grounded in faith, one that serves both the students and the larger community. It’s an example he points to repeatedly when trying to enlist more financial resources for the CEF.

“It’s hard to beat the mission of helping kids,” said Morrisey said.

“It’s helping to change their lives,” he added simply, “and that’s pretty cool.”


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