Community of Saints Regional Catholic School embraces diversity and new approaches
By Sandra R. Sabo
Now in its seventh year, Community of Saints Regional Catholic School hasn’t had time to get set in its ways — and probably never will, given its culture of innovation. Formed in 2012 by the merger of three parish schools, Community of Saints has increased its K-8 enrollment more than 20 percent over the last three years and also has a fully enrolled preschool.
Driving much of that growth has been a 29 percent increase in Latino enrollment during the last three years. “The school is diverse not only because of where it’s located, on the border between St. Paul and West St. Paul, but also because it does a wonderful job of reaching out to a community where Catholicism and faith are integral to the culture,” said Melinda Frias, whose two daughters attend Community of Saints. Her family worships at Our Lady of Guadalupe in St. Paul — one of the school’s three sponsoring parishes — where school representatives often give recruiting presentations in Spanish.
At the school itself, an inclusive atmosphere starts as soon as students and families walk through the doors. “We now have a bilingual administrative assistant, so the first person visitors come in contact with can be welcoming in both English and Spanish,” said Principal Bridget Kramer.
Word of mouth within the Latino community, together with small changes such as offering school tours in Spanish, has also helped recruitment. Kramer meets quarterly with several other Catholic school principals to share ideas for improving engagement with Latino students and parents.
Two times per year, all Community of Saints students attend a Spanish mass. During Advent, they participate in Our Lady of Guadalupe’s Las Posadas — a nine-day celebration that reenacts Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem.
“The procession has a different destination every evening and ends with a big celebration and piñatas full of candy,” Kramer explained, adding that the school usually welcomes 200 visitors when it hosts. “Our students from Our Lady of Guadalupe are proud to show their classmates what their parish does, and our non-Latino students have the opportunity to experience something new.”
The school’s diversity appealed to Frias and her husband when they started looking for a quality academic environment paired with the Catholic values they teach at home. “We wanted our children to be exposed to and develop an appreciation for diversity because when they head off into the world, they’ll be engaging with people of different ethnicities and different socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds,” Frias said.
The school staff participates regularly in cultural proficiency trainings to ensure they help all students succeed. “We try to be very conscious of our students’ individual needs, learning styles, abilities and backgrounds,” said third grade teacher Brigid Krause. “We want to help pull out their strengths but also support them in the ways they need to grow.”
She is one of three teachers at Community of Saints participating in a blended learning pilot program funded by a grant from the University of Notre Dame’s Higher-Powered Learning Program. Blended learning, which combines individualized online learning with large and small group instruction, will be introduced to all Community of Saints’ K-8 classrooms beginning with the 2019-2020 school year.
For math and reading, students move at their own pace to complete exercises, lessons and educational games on Google Chromebooks. The computer software uses algorithms to provide real-time feedback on how well concepts taught by the teacher are understood and applied by each student.
“I can see their progress, based on the software’s data and feedback, which keeps the kids accountable. Together we can celebrate their growth and identify what was most challenging,” Krause explained.
“The program doesn’t give you instructions. You have to work your way through and figure out what to do, which I really like,” said third grade student Josephina Frias. “And the games for multiplication, division and fractions are really fun.”
Josephina’s mother, Melinda, is equally enthusiastic. “From my perspective as a parent who works in the tech space, applying the concept of ‘gamification’ to the learning experience truly is innovative,” Frias noted. “The experience is meant to delight students and motivate them to continue progressing through different skill levels.”
Community of Saints’ foray into blended learning and Latino enrollment initiatives contributed to its selection as a runner-up for the Healey Education Foundation’s annual Founder’s Award for entrepreneurial spirit in action. The $5,000 award from the New Jersey-based nonprofit also recognized the school’s 28 percent increase in annual giving in 2017-2018. The funds raised — $275,000 — all went toward tuition assistance for grades K-8.
“No family is turned away due to financial circumstances, which has also allowed us to be more inclusive,” Kramer said. “We have an amazing crew called Alums & Friends & Families (AFF) that works hard to raise money so we can provide substantial tuition to our families who wish to have their students receive a Catholic education but cannot afford it on their own.”
The school extended affordability into its preschool by receiving a four-star certification from Minnesota’s quality rating and improvement system Parent Aware, which enables some parents to qualify for state funding to cover tuition.
Community of Saints recently signed a 20-year lease for its school building and worship space, ensuring it will continue building upon its core values of faith, inclusivity and love for decades to come.
Both Krause and Frias described the school as a close-knit community where nearly every teacher and staff member knows all 174 students — and many parents — by name.
“The second you step in the door of the school, you’ll feel the positive, loving environment and energy,” Krause said. “That supportive attitude rubs off on the kids and on the community as a whole. Our students, for example, all want to do well and want their friends to be just as successful. “It’s more than a school,” she concluded. “It’s like a family.”