School Profile: St. Vincent de Paul

You Matter. Every Child, Every Day.


The goal of a St. Vincent de Paul education is to focus on the child, and that was the ultimate draw for Greg and Tonya Schlaefer.

“You could feel it when you walked in — the kids are the focus. They are loved and cherished every minute that they are there,” Tonya Schlaefer said of their school tour.

Having moved from Milwaukee, WI, to Brooklyn Park in 2003 with their daughter, Megan, the Schlaefers were looking for a Catholic school in which to enroll their child. School size and ease of transportation were factors in their search, but it was the dedication to the student at St. Vincent de Paul that captured their attention.

Megan Schlaefer has since graduated from St. Vincent de Paul, but her younger siblings — Caraline, Joey and Isabel — now attend and are a part of the growing student body.

In the past year, St. Vincent de Paul has added more than 35 students in first through eighth grade alone. Including their preschool — which began in 2016 and has doubled in size from 30 students in 2016 to 60 students in 2017 — the entire student body reaches numbers just below 500.

“Parents are seeking us out,” Principal Lisa Simon said when discussing the feedback she’s received from new parents. “They’re looking for an alternative environment that embraces and nurtures their child’s development.”

Of the new students, more than half of them have transferred in, mostly from public middle schools.


“You could feel it when you walked in — the kids are the focus. They are loved and cherished every minute that they are there,” Tonya Schlaefer said of their school tour.


Connecting to kids

The factors drawing families to St. Vincent de Paul are also keeping them there. Simon credits the school’s 97 percent retention rate to the staff, stating that parents comment on how committed, devoted and loving they are.

Seventh and eighth grade literature and science teacher Joe Olson makes it a priority to connect with his students.

“Ultimately, when [students] leave, what I want them to know is that I care about them,” Olson said. “I want them to become educated people who can make informed decisions. … I want them to have a good framework to make good choices and ethical decisions. I want them to be good, holy people who don’t feel intimidated by jargon or computers or science.”

Eighth grader Abby Zehr said, “The teachers and staff know all of us personally. And the teachers make lessons fun.”

Zehr shared how, when learning about earthquakes, Olson had students work together in small groups to build earthquake-proof structures out of spaghetti, marshmallows and tape.

“We could have read about it in a textbook,” Zehr said. “But Mr. Olson wanted us to understand and take in the lesson [from a creative perspective].”

In addition to the dedicated staff, parents are also pleased with two new elements to the school: additional support staff and “The Royal Way.”

By adding a reading specialist and an enrichment specialist to its support staff in 2016, Simon says, “the schools has grown its ability to meet children where they are at.”

Seeking to help students reach their full potential, reading specialist Peggy White works with pre-kindergarten to eighth grade students on their reading skills, basing her material on the unit that the teacher is presenting in the classroom.

Providing individual and small group support in and out of the classroom, White’s goal is to “support the classroom teacher and the students to use their God-given gifts to reach their full potential.”

Enrichment specialist Ashley Groehler has a similar goal. Like White, Groehler seeks to support classroom teachers by providing sustainable and customizable in-class and out of class programs for high achieving students in math and language arts.

This year, Groehler created a math lab that works with students in second through sixth grade, two days a week. In math lab, students identified as highly exceeding grade level expectations substitute their math class for math lab, where they work on a variety of challenging assignments.

For students in seventh and eighth grade, Groehler has collaborated with teachers, so these students can do advanced lessons in class. Schlaefer’s seventh grade daughter, Caraline, started advanced math this year.

“She was nervous at first,” Schlaefer said. “But she’s super glad now. She’s really enjoying it.”

Groehler hopes to add a math lab, or similar program, for first grade students yet this year.

St. Vincent de Paul also has a reading paraprofessional, Sue Sutko, who works with students who have fallen behind phonetically and students with dyslexia or other learning differences. Sutko uses the Orton-Gillingham multisensory method to overcome issues with phonetics, decoding phrases or blending sounds together.

In addition to increasing its support staff, St. Vincent de Paul has added its version of the “Top 20” program, called “The Royal Way.” A social/emotional program, The Royal Way is a daily lesson focusing on behaviors and concepts related to interacting with others, overcoming mistakes and learning to take risks.

“It launched this year, and we’re already seeing an improvement,” Simon said. “The kids are using the language.”

A program for students, parents and staff, the Royal Way is incorporated by Olson into issues that arise in his classroom.

“If two people are having a problem, I might remind them to ‘honor the absent’ if they’re talking unkindly about someone,” Olson said. “It’s a quick phrase to convey a lot [of meaning].”

And its effect is extending beyond the classroom. Greg Schlaefer said he is hearing the language at home when his children are working through an argument. His youngest daughter, Isabel, recently used concepts learned through The Royal Way to solve the problem of inadequate seating at lunch. A lunch room volunteer recently told Schlaefer that instead of leaving others out, Isabel and her friends split their group in half to include everyone, without an adult interceding.

“We have an extremely strong community here,” Simon said. “It’s much more than students and teachers; it’s the parish community that’s extremely strong.”


“Parents are seeking us out,” Principal Lisa Simon said when discussing the feedback she’s received from new parents. “They’re looking for an alternative environment that embraces and nurtures their child’s development.”


Sharing the faith

At school, a weekly Mass is held on Wednesday, but most families also attend Sunday Mass.

“We know a lot of the families [at Mass], so when I’m at church, it feels like home,” Zehr said.

The communal feeling extends beyond Sunday morning. During faith formation classes, Greg Schlaefer said the dads host a basketball league. Once students graduate from St. Vincent de Paul, though they attend different high schools the families all come back for Sunday Mass.

“We find reasons to stay together, instead of ways to grow apart,” Schlaefer said.

“We are all one SVDP community,” Simon said. “We share physical space, resources, programming and community. Many

of our school families belong to the parish. We pray for each other. We worship together. We support common service outreach experiences. We have staff members who work both in the parish and school. It’s truly wonderful.”

Father Dennis Zehren is pastor at St. Vincent de Paul Church, adjacent to the school.

“Our school continually breathes new life into the parish and gives people reason to hope and reason to rejoice,” he said. “The students also remind us of some of the most central lessons of spirituality — if we want to grow in our faith, we have to share it with others. The best way to deepen our understanding of the ways of God is to teach them to others. If we want more love in our lives, we must reach out in love to others.”

The staff credits the students for uplifting their spirits. When days get tough, Father Zehren, Simon and Olson need only to look at the students to have their day brightened.

“The students infuse a lot of joy into my spirit and preaching,” Father Zehren said. “There are times when I need to prepare a homily, but my spirit feels heavy or dry. Then I walk through the halls of the school or have lunch with the students in the cafeteria, and it has a renewing effect.”

“There’s nothing better than… walking to a classroom and seeing all the lightness and brilliance of these kids,” Simon said.

“The students are so full of joy; they brighten my day,” Olson said. “In the summer, without the students, it’s not the same; they bring vitality. It’s what it is all about — it’s about the kids.”


It’s about the kids!

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