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Against all odds

Our Lady of Unity School named CEF School of Excellence

by Jill Ragar Esfeld 
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — A few weeks ago, each teacher at Our Lady of Unity School here got a mysterious envelope. Inside was a large star with a letter on it.

Along with their students, they were called to meet in the church, where they were asked to together figure out how the stars could be combined to form a sentence.

When the puzzle was solved, students and teachers alike erupted in cheers, for the stars spelled out: “Congratulations. Our Lady of Unity is the CEF School of Excellence for 2010.”

“We had to put all the stars together because we worked as a team to make this effort happen,” said principal Karen Davis. “It was very exciting.”

When Our Lady of Unity pastor Father Kent O’Connor learned his parish school had been selected by the Catholic Education Foundation to receive the Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann School of Excellence Award, he wasn’t at all surprised.

You see, from the time he arrived at Our Lady of Unity, Davis had been telling him with confidence that they would win.

Against the odds

As a matter of fact, being named the School of Excellence was a goal set by Davis before her school was even eligible to apply for the award.

“One of our requirements [for the award] is making AYP, which is Adequate Yearly Progress as established by the state of Kansas,” explained CEF executive director Michael Morrisey.

For the previous two years, Our Lady of Unity School had not met the AYP benchmark scores on assessment tests, so it wasn’t eligible to apply.

“Our mission was to raise our students’ test scores and really work toward receiving this award,” said Davis. “But being eligible to apply for it was basically our first goal.”

The school had a bigger challenge than most in meeting that goal. Out of its 144 students, a majority comes from underprivileged circumstances, and 96 are identified as English-language learners.

“Seventy-six percent of their population participates in the government free or reduced [-price] lunch program,” said Morrisey. “This tells us the home lives their students come from are probably bare-bones. So the kids that are at Our Lady of Unity have to work much harder.”

“In many cases, English is a second language for these kids,” he added. “In many ways, it makes their progress, their receiving this award, even more remarkable.”

Our Lady of Unity works closely with the Turner School District, which provides the English Language Learner (ELL) services for students.

In addition, to improve test scores, the school implemented what Davis called a multitiered support system.

“We worked closely as a staff and focused on what was happening in the classroom,” she explained. “We identified what weaknesses every child had and then how, with the staff and resources we have on hand, we could address those weaknesses and improve student learning.”

The object was to concentrate on students who needed extra support in reading and math.

“We figured out a way for them to get small group or one-on-one instruction,” said Davis. “We’ve just been very creative in our scheduling and planning and figuring out who we could use to help us reach this goal.”

The school also received a gift of soft- ware from the Turner School District called SuccessMaker, which focuses on math and reading skills and aligns with Kansas state standards.

“It finds out what the child is missing in their learning and then helps fill in the gaps,” explained Davis.

When the spring 2010 test scores came in, it was clear the school had reached its goal . . . and how. Students successfully made AYP with a 23.4 percent increase in reading and a 17.9 percent increase in math.

“Karen worked very hard over the year to make this goal come true,” said Father O’Connor. “Here is someone who sets her mind on a goal and has the wherewithal to finish.”

Faith and charity

Something else Davis sets her mind to is making sure faith is always at the heart of academic efforts.

“I think what we’re equally proud of, as far as they’re concerned, is they tie the catholicity piece to the academics,” said Morrisey. “Catholicity was probably the foundation that helped them get where they needed to.”

Our Lady of Unity students go to Mass twice a week and pray the rosary as a school once a month.

Currently, the entire staff and faculty are participating in an intensive study of the theology of the body through Benedictine’s School of Faith program.

“Then the teachers do an excellent job of infusing our faith into everything they do throughout the day with the students,” added Davis. “It’s very much a part of who we are and what sets us apart from the public school system.”

Another important factor in the success of the school is the strong support of the parents and church community. The school’s active PTO is always looking for ways to help out and be supportive of what’s happening in the classrooms.

But perhaps the most impressive aspect of this determined school is its generosity.

“A lot of these families are folks that are living in poverty; let’s say it the way it is,” said Morrisey. “Yet they still have the mindset to help others, and they’ve done a great job in that respect, too.”

Indeed, Our Lady of Unity students give what they can to an offertory at Mass each Friday.

“That money goes back to different organizations,” said Davis. “We sponsor a food kitchen, and we’ll get coloring books and crayons and give them to KU Med Center.”

The school also has a student council that plans different service projects. Last year, they did a canned food drive and a mitten and glove drive.

Our Lady of Unity’s success has been dearly earned and well-deserved, and Davis doesn’t hesitate to acknowledge the CEF scholarship program, which supports a majority of her students, for help- ing them reach their goals.

“Every child deserves a great educa- tion,” she said. “And we have worked really hard to provide that for Our Lady of Unity community.

“We also have great parents that are very supportive of what we’re doing and a fantastic teaching staff, and a pastor who supports everything the school does.”

Father O’Connor agreed, but added recognition and thanks to his predecessor“.It should be said that Father Michael Hermes played a huge part in getting this school on track,” he said. “He did all the hard work; I’m simply reaping the benefits.”

And Father O’Connor feels greatly blessed for the community he’s inherited. “We have an excellent school, an excellent principal, and an excellent teaching staff,” he said. “I already knew it. “I’m so happy that they were recognized by the wider community as being, in fact, excellent.”

About the author

Jill Esfeld

Jill Ragar Esfeld received a degree in Writing from Missouri State University and started her profession as a magazine feature writer, but quickly transitioned to technical/instructional writing where she had a successful career spanning more than 20 years. She returned to feature writing when she began freelancing for The Leaven in 2004. Her articles have won several awards from the Catholic Press Association. Jill grew up in Christ the King parish in Kansas City, Missouri; and has been a member of Holy Trinity Parish in Lenexa, Kansas, for 35 years.

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