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Catholic schools lead young minds to Christ

Corpus Christi School in Lawrence lets Leaven reporter relive her middle school years

by Jessica Langdon

LAWRENCE — I asked for a day in the life of a Catholic school student, and that’s exactly what I got — complete with a refresher course in math.

Midway through the last class before lunch at Corpus Christi School in Lawrence on Jan. 19, I examined my reporter’s notebook.

I discovered, to my surprise, that I had stopped writing down the usual quotes and observations . . . and started taking algebra notes.

If seventh-grade teacher Elizabeth Haney could get a reporter who hasn’t had a math class since college calculus so wrapped into the lesson, I can only imagine the connection she makes with her students on a daily basis.

Haney is teaching the first class of seventh-graders in Corpus Christi’s 12- year history. A restructuring of the Lawrence schools coincided with Corpus Christi’s addition of seventh grade, so the timing worked out perfectly.

The addition of eighth grade will complete the school in 2012-2013.

Like so many of the Catholic schools within the archdiocese, Corpus Christi will soon offer a Catholic education for students aged kindergarten through eighth grade, plus preschool.

A place to blossom

The class was quick to welcome photographer Lori Wood Habiger and me on the day of our visit.

Seventh-grade students Matt Walker and Cameron Guy were eager to invite me, for example, to join in the verbendings competition in Spanish class. (Spanish, by the way, is a requirement for seventh grade and an option for many grades.)

The competition was fun but fierce. I sat this one out, but might have been a bit more competitive had the subject been French, which has also been an elective here.

“You have a lot of choices in electives,” said Brennan Clark, who started at Corpus Christi in first grade. There’s been journalism, entrepreneurship and more.

Like Brennan, some of the 17 seventhgraders have been students here for years.

“Once my parents and I heard there was going to be a seventh grade, it was a pretty easy decision,” said Jacob Pavlyac, who also started here in first grade. “It’s a Catholic school and we’re a Catholic family.”

“The religion-based education our kids are getting is very important to our family,” said Michelle Wilkus, whose son Matthew is in seventh grade and has been here since kindergarten.

“The academic expectation is definitely higher,” said Jennifer Allen, whose son Thomas is in seventh grade.

Parents have found that children are focused and engaged at any level, and resources are available for those who need some extra help or a challenge.

The school has seen a steep increase in enrollment during the past few years, and several of the seventh-graders are in their first year here.

It didn’t take long after pastor Father Mick Mulvany announced the school would have seventh grade for Beth Oblon’s son Patrick to decide this is what he wanted to do.

“It’s been a true blessing for him,” said Oblon. “He’s blossomed.”

Seventh-grader Joe Amaro has also made strides. He told me he wasn’t making good grades at his previous school, and the easy work he was given there didn’t help.

Things are different now.

“My grades went up. I’m back at a seventh-grade level,” said Joe. “This is the best place for me.”

Footsteps to heaven

Jill LaPoint, who teaches Spanish and French at Corpus Christi, started Spanish class with a prayer. The students knew “El Ave Maria” by heart.

Corpus Christi’s theme this year is “Footsteps to heaven,” and it is incorporated into a lot of what the students do.

“Their daily behavior should be images of Christ,” said principal Mary Mattern.

It fits right in with the 2012 Catholic Schools Week theme: Catholic Schools: Faith. Academics. Service. (The week runs from Jan. 29-Feb. 5.)

Haney covers just about every academic subject with her students and never seems to miss out on a teaching moment. She worked math questions into students’ PowerPoint presentations on countries.

I even heard her helping some of the kids analyze the nutritional quality of their breakfasts.

But there is one thing Haney integrates into her entire curriculum: faith. The ability to include God in the conversation opens doors to a whole education, she said.

“If you leave God out, it’s like you’re missing some of the essential things in learning about yourself and the world around you,” she said.

Sharing experience

As Haney reviewed equations with her algebra students, the pre-algebra group prepared for their upcoming test using SuccessMaker. The computer program is personalized, basing its next questions on how the student answered the previous ones.

Younger grades use the program, too, I learned when I got to peek into all the classrooms.

The days of simple black or green chalkboards or even dry erase boards are gone. The boards here can handle dry erase markers, PowerPoint presentations, even videos and other programs.

In Karen Davies’ fifth-grade classroom, students worked on biography posters about figures ranging from Muppets creator Jim Henson to Princess Diana to Adolf Hitler to James Naismith, the inventor of basketball.

The projects are colorful, filled with accurate information, and researched online right here in the classroom, said Davies.

Teachers know that incorporating technology into their classrooms — no matter what the subject — is a must.

Within the building, the staff boasts a total of 328 years of experience. Some have a wealth of knowledge when it comes to instruction, and some bring knowledge of new technologies to the table.

Faith seeking knowledge

The adults get to know each child. Mattern called kids by name, knew what was going on with them, and asked for updates on issues they’d been talking about.

“The day we stop learning and growing is the day we stop being a school of excellence,” Mattern said.

As good as it might feel to get the building clean at the end of May, by about June 10 it already feels empty, said Father Mulvany, whose office is in the school.

He sees Catholic schools as a way of bringing a different kind of life to a parish.

The mission is a simple but important one: to hand on the faith.

“Faith seeking understanding” is the motto written on the students’ shirt patches.

Father Mulvany hopes the foundation they’re getting here and at home will stick with them for life.

“I want them to be great citizens of the world, and a people engaged in their faith with critical thinking,” he said.

A relationship with Christ

One of the perks of being a reporter is getting to do things I might not otherwise ever have the chance to do.

Returning to school for a day is one of those things.

As much as things have changed, especially when it comes to technology (MacBooks abound, and using them is the favorite part of some kids’ day) it’s nice to see that some things stay the same.

Kids’ curiosity and enthusiasm, for example.

When one student walked up to me in the hall and asked if I was with “The Eleven,” I had to say yes. (Sounds enough like “The Leaven.”) Too cute.

And some of the third-graders shared their plans for a newspaper of their own, a side project that’s not a class assignment. They’re calling it the “Daily Catholic,” and had divided up roles from printer to head of photography.

Nor was there ever a dull moment in the seventh-grade classroom.

Several moms talked about the way the teacher can laugh with the kids while still setting them on the right path.

There’s a sense of community here, they said.

Madison Piper came to Corpus Christi this year for seventh grade, and she likes the way everyone gets along.

“It’s fun,” she said as she added color to an assignment for religion class. “You have smaller classes, more attention.”

One thing I probably never would have noticed when I was in school is how quickly the day seems to go. I couldn’t believe it when 3 p.m. arrived.

They cover a whole world of topics in about seven hours every day, and the school hopes the lessons learned here will shape a future generation.

“A child has to know some success,” Father Mulvany said. A goal set forth for all the Catholic schools within the archdiocese is to allow every young mind to touch the face of Christ, he said.

“They have to realize that they have something to offer,” said Father Mulvany. “All of that is best laid out in front of them by making sure they have a relationship with Christ.”

About the author

Jessica Langdon

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