In Maplewood, St. Jerome embraces Karen community, new curriculum
A homemade quilt hangs inside St. Jerome Catholic School in Maplewood. Its center square reads, “Everyone counts” — a perfect mantra for the school’s 2018-2019 year because the students welcomed nearly 50 new classmates who will become an integral part of St. Jerome’s fabric.
A WORLD OF WELCOME
In summer 2017, St. Jerome Principal Anne Gattman noticed a man robed like St. Francis on the school’s playground with children from the Catholic Karen community. They were on a field trip through St. Casimir Catholic Church on St. Paul’s Eastside. Since the parish doesn’t have a school, Gattman wondered how the school community could welcome them as students.
Gattman met with the man, Franciscan Brother of Peace, Deacon Seraphim Wirth, and they began working out logistics and a tuition structure.
The brothers secured a grant for busing, tuition assistance and funding for a new staff position. Dah Pó serves as the school’s Karen family liaison. Gattman went to St. Casimir, where many of the Karen worship, and spoke at Masses, encouraging them to enroll their children at St. Jerome. Then, she prayed.
Last school year, three families enrolled. The families had great experiences and spread the word. In March, the school hosted a Karen enrollment meeting with great success. Now, St. Jerome has 26 Karen families.
Deacon Seraphim knew if he could find a school to accommodate the large group of Karen, they would do well because their faith is so strong. He believes St. Jerome provides a sense of peace for them. The Karen families are refugees from Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, in southeast Asia.
“The Karen were an ethnic minority group, persecuted by the Burmese army,” he explained. “Many ran through the jungle for months to get to Thailand’s border, where they remained in refugee camps for roughly 10-15 years. Most of the Karen children at St. Jerome were born in those refugee camps.”
Karen families started arriving in St. Paul about seven years ago, and that is when the Franciscan Brothers of Peace started working with them.
“It’s inspiring that, despite all their difficulties, they still keep their faith,” Deacon Seraphim said. “They can really add a lot to our Catholic schools.”
History teacher Pat Wallner embraces the diversity in their school.
“I have met so many nice families over the years from so many diverse backgrounds,” said Wallner, who has been teaching at St. Jerome since 1995. “I’m looking forward to teaching our new students from the Karen community. I think they’ll be a tremendous asset to our school.”
Historically, St. Jerome has enjoyed a reputation for being racially diverse. Currently, it has students from Hmong, Vietnamese, Latino and African backgrounds.
“IT’S INSPIRING THAT, DESPITE ALL THEIR DIFFICULTIES, THEY STILL KEEP THEIR FAITH. THEY CAN REALLY ADD A LOT TO OUR CATHOLIC SCHOOLS.” – DEACON SERAPHIM
Ryan and Danielle Carlson have three daughters at St. Jerome and serve on the school’s marketing team.
“St. Jerome is about inclusivity for all of God’s children,” Ryan said. “Our kids are learning how to treat their fellow human beings.”
The Carlsons transferred their daughter, Anya, a sixth grader, to St. Jerome two years ago. Her public school was also diverse, making the transition easy.
“I like how there is a variety of people I can meet,” Anya said.
“Our mission is every child is a child of God, which embraces diversity of everything,” Gattman said. “And we’re creating a hybrid model.”
St. Jerome also welcomes students who are “exceptional learners” — those who especially benefit from personalized support because of their diverse learning needs. Laura Leonard’s son, Nathan, has autism.
“The students are so good to Nathan,” Leonard said. “They say hello at Mass and play with him on the playground.”
Virginia Revering, who is from Mexico, has two children at the school. “St. Jerome has given us a lot of support. They give students a lot of help academically. They push them forward.” Her daughter, GG, a third grader, said she likes how nice everyone treats each other.
Revering and two Karen mothers, Naw Mu and Pae Pae, have arranged play time for their children outside of the school day. Naw Mu’s three children attend St. Jerome.
“My favorite thing is that they teach the Catholic faith, and that teachers teach very well,” Naw Mu said with a smile. “My daughter, Hser Eh Paw, was getting Cs in the public school. Now, she gets top grades. I’m so happy.”
Pae Pae, also a mother of three children, said, “I love the religious faith classes, so I like St. Jerome better than public schools.”
In addition to vibrant enrollment growth, another new and exciting element is stitched into the school’s atmosphere. This year, the school — now totaling 143 students in preschool through eighth grade — is transitioning to a classical Catholic model of teaching.
“Last fall, we needed to strategize about what would keep St. Jerome vital,” said Gattman, who, as the new principal last year, wanted the school to remain a strong part of its community.
So, she and the teachers committed to the hard work of two important goals: change and growth.
“We played with the idea of becoming a feeder school to the classical academies nearby,” she said.
St. Jerome secured a grant through the Catholic Schools Center of Excellence and used it to front-load staff with curriculum development, resources and training with Mary Pat Donoghue, secretariat of Catholic education for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Laura Leonard, the classical lead instructor for St. Jerome, explained that with classical learning, the objective is to pursue truth, know truth and love whatever is true, beautiful and good.
“We want texts to inspire wonder and shape the imagination,” she said, “and teach them what is meant to be human, like how to be a good friend or deal with grief.”
“WE WANT TEXTS TO INSPIRE WONDER AND SHAPE THE IMAGINATION, AND TEACH THEM WHAT IS MEANT TO BE HUMAN, LIKE HOW TO BE A GOOD FRIEND OR DEAL WITH GRIEF.” – LAURA LEONARD
Students at St. Jerome will study Latin for their language class. They will have a core course integrating theology, literature and history, which will progress with each grade.
Third grade teacher Sarah Moberg had no trouble making her classroom reflect the new educational model; she turned her classroom into a medieval castle, dubbed “Castle Camelot.”
Learning will be divided into three phases that are compatible with the stages of childhood: grammar, logic and rhetoric — which help form virtuous, wise and eloquent people.
In a recent church bulletin, Gattman noted, “There is wonderful energy, spirit and goodwill humming in our school. It is really fun to see how dedicated these teachers are and how they come together to plan, solve and create.”
Ryan Carlson said, “I’m looking forward to the new traditions. There’s so much re-birth.”