EXPANDING FAMILY: KNOWN FOR EDUCATING MULTIPLE GENERATIONS, ST. PETER’S CATHOLIC SCHOOL IN FOREST LAKE ADDS MIDDLE SCHOOL
On a cold Wednesday afternoon in February, a priest’s collar whizzes down the slopes of Wild Mountain ski and snowboard area near Taylors Falls. A group of fifth and sixth grade students from St. Peter’s Catholic School in Forest Lake follow closely, bundled up in snow pants, coats and mittens. Amanda Degerstrom, 12, snowboards as part of this weekly physical education outing, which provides an opportunity for exercise, relationship-building and fun in the winter months.
“I love that I have the opportunity to learn how to ski or snowboard with my friends and the teachers and priests,” said Amanda, a sixth grader at St. Peter’s. “I get to learn and have fun at the same time.”
This convergence of lessons in and out of the classroom underlies St. Peter’s approach to providing a holistic Catholic education for its 250 students. They’ve rebuilt a thriving school community whose tenets are clearly outlined on a billboard on nearby Interstate 35E: “Small classes, proven success.”
Principal James Morehead has led the school for the past three years with consistency and a solid direction. The school received the Forest Lake Times’ “Best Private School” Readers’ Choice Award for 2017.
“There’s renewed energy within the school and community,” Morehead said.
That energy is propelling the addition of seventh grade this fall to the prekindergarten through sixth grade school following a successful capital campaign to add middle school classrooms and modify existing office space. With a current class of seventh grade students signed up, school leaders have begun planning a class of eighth graders for 2019.
The timing was right for this monumental move. The public school district recently changed to a middle school model. And, families had expressed a desire to continue a St. Peter’s education through the middle school years for decades. Now the school looks forward to providing a Catholic education during this critical season of life.
“We believe that seventh and eighth grade is a pivotal time for kids in their development, figuring out exactly who they are,” Morehead said. “It’s a crucial time to have that smaller, faith-centered education.”
A culture of excellence
The culture at St. Peter’s is notably family-like. Both Morehead and one of the two parish priests welcome students at the drop-off site each morning, rain or shine. Morehead even answers the main office phone on occasion and plans to head back into the classroom and teach seventh grade life science in the fall. With the help of small class sizes, teachers work to meet each student’s individual needs, and parents serve as key partners in their children’s education.
St. Peter’s students perform well academically, with 80 percent in accelerated classes. Beyond managing a rigorous curriculum that prepares students for the next academic level, staff members also focus on character development so that graduates are strong leaders long after their final class at St. Peter’s.
With the help of small class sizes, teachers work to meet each student’s individual needs, and parents serve as key partners in their children’s education.
St. Peter’s is also distinctly Christ-centered. Faith extends beyond weekly Mass to all aspects of the students’ education, from language arts to their time on the ski slopes. Students attend Eucharistic adoration at least once per month and holy water fonts are outside of each classroom.
“We live our faith within our school,” Morehead said.
Father Daniel Bodin, the parish pastor, engages with students throughout the school day starting with the morning welcome.
Supporting students in their faith and inviting them to become a part of the broader parish community is a key part of their education experience, Father Bodin said.
“I always believe that a parish with a school always
completes the parish and makes it whole,” he said.
Father Bodin looks forward to extending their grade school recipe for success into the middle school years and continuing to offer students practical tools to carry them through life. He encourages prospective families to visit St. Peter’s and consider enrolling.
“To find out who we really are, you have to let your child come hereand experience what the teacher, the principal and the community as a whole are going to offer this child,” he said. “You will see that we’re educating them spiritually, physically, emotionally and mentally to be successful in life.”
It feels like family
If you ask sixth grade teacher Deb Sieben how long she’s been teaching at St. Peter’s, she chuckles as she reveals that she joined the staff nearly four decades ago, in 1979. She’s seen plenty of changes in the school, from different principals to multiple building projects to the addition of kindergarten and later prekindergarten.
Sieben is at the point in her career where she’s taught several students whose parents she also had in class. She said that educating multiple generations illustrates the impact of a
St. Peter’s education.
Sieben’s curriculum has also greatly evolved in her 39-year career. She now teaches robotics as part of the school’s STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) program and sees how the challenging, hands-on experiences draw in students and help them make new connections with technology. But the strong teacher-student relationships remain the same. She reconnects with past students at the school’s annual carnival or often catches a personal note on her whiteboard from former students who drop by.
“We invite that,” Sieben said. “They seek our prayers when needed or come back and celebrate their joys.”
Both of her grown children attended St. Peter’s, and she wishes that a middle school option would have been available at the time.
Now parents like Kathleen Steffes have the chance. Three of her children graduated from St. Peter’s and now attend St. Agnes School in St. Paul. Steffes is thrilled that her 12-year-old son will be a part of the first seventh grade class in the fall.
“St. Peter’s is small enough that it feels like family,” she said. ‘There are many opportunities for school families to contribute through volunteering, and these opportunities help us to get to know the teachers, staff and other families.”
Steffes said her children’s education has been a “springboard” for her own faith. Through the take-home projects, readings and curriculum, she began to see her faith through the eyes of her children.
“Being a parent of children in a Catholic school re-grounded me in life and afforded me the opportunity to re-learn alongside my children,” she said.
St. Peter’s staff members hope to extend that opportunity to more families as they aim to increase enrollment and maintain a strong middle school curriculum. For Morehead, a lifelong Forest Lake resident who lives only six doors away from the school, he’s grateful for the parish and community that he felt connected to long before he signed on as principal.
Every day, he walks the few blocks to work ready to greet students by name to start another school day.
“Now, I feel like I’m part of the family,” he said.