Culture of Kindness and Caring Abounds at St. Stephen’s
By Debbie Musser
Twelve years ago, Joyce Beuning enrolled her oldest child in kindergarten at St. Stephen’s Catholic School in Anoka. She and her husband had grown up in small towns and attended schools where they knew almost everyone. They wanted the same, small-school experience for their own children. And they’ve found that at St. Stephen’s, where Catholic values and virtues create a positive, tight-knit learning community.
“St. Stephen’s is such a caring environment for our family, and I appreciate the emphasis on putting others before yourself,” said Beuning, who has three children at St. Stephen’s and two alumni, now in high school.
Parents, teachers and students are all invested in the success of St. Stephen’s through intentional relationship building, said Principal Diane Morri. “Our school is an extension of family. The climate and culture in the building are about happiness, respect and helping one another.”
St. Stephen’s has a rich history, dating back to 1881 when it opened as St. Anne’s School. A new St. Stephen’s school building opened in 1950, and updates to the front of the school were completed in 1998.
Today’s student body is comprised of students from Anoka and many other area cities, including Coon Rapids, Blaine, Andover, Ramsey, and Nowthen. Twenty-one percent of students receive scholarships to help families cover the tuition costs of Catholic education.
Collaboration and kindness
Morri points to her staff, a combination of veteran and newer teachers, as key to their successful, student-centered community.
“Our teachers are committed to the school and students, and they support one another,” Morri said. “They embrace technology, are lifelong learners and most of all, they’re problem solvers, always eager to help and try new ways of doing things. I have never worked with a staff that is this collaborative.”
Shelley Lysdahl, the middle school literature teacher, has taught at St. Stephen’s for 20 years. In her classroom, she uses literacy circles to get students excited about reading. Surrounded by books, small groups discuss and reflect to foster critical thinking and collaboration. She said that beyond core subjects, students learn key relational and interpersonal skills.
“My own kids went to St. Stephen’s and yes, it’s an investment,” Lysdahl said. “But if you come to St. Stephen’s, your kids are going to learn how to be kind.”
Seventh-grade student Izzy Eskuchen, who has attended St. Stephen’s since preschool, likes the small classes because they make it easier to concentrate.
“It’s a great learning environment with good teachers, and you get exposure to the Catholic faith and grow closer to God,” Izzy said.
Lysdahl notes the changing diversity at St. Stephen’s as another positive in the school community.
“It’s great to have a diverse school, as the students can learn from one another and learn to respect each other,” she said. “Everyone is the same here, no matter what color they are, and that’s so good to see.”
Strong school and parish relationship
The changing diversity at St. Stephen’s reflects St. Stephen’s Church, a parish with a large and growing Latino population. Parishioner Karina Fabrizzi, who has one son at St. Stephen’s and another who graduated last year, recognizes the importance of reaching out to parish families to share the story of St. Stephen’s.
“Catholic education is key to the formation of my children and my family,” said Fabrizzi, who is originally from Argentina. “It’s important that Latino families know that they have access to an excellent Catholic school.
“Some of these parents don’t speak English. Some don’t think they can afford to send their children to St. Stephen’s. We try to help them understand that yes, they too can come to the school.”
Principal Morri invited Fabrizzi to participate in the Catholic Schools Center of Excellence (CSCOE) Latino enrollment squad, an initiative to increase the number of Latino students in Catholic schools. “I’ve learned how to engage more parents to know about Catholic schools and all the possibilities they offer,” Fabrizzi said.
Fabrizzi speaks about St. Stephen’s School at the parish’s 12:30 p.m. Spanish-speaking Sunday Mass and encourages families to take a tour of the building in either English or Spanish. She also helps families with school registration and has translated marketing materials into Spanish to help promote the school.
Teachers from St. Stephen’s are also regular volunteers at the welcome desk during weekend Masses.
“It’s really important for school families to see their teachers at church on weekends,” Morri said. “It shows some investment, and it’s nice for students to see their teachers living out their faith.”
St. Stephen’s two parochial vicars, Fathers Matthew Quail and Louie Floeder, continue the tradition of priests teaching religion to middle school students. Father Bennet Tran serves as pastor.
“The school is the biggest ministry in our parish,” said Father Tran. “We recognize it’s a long-range investment, as we’re doing the work of forming leaders for many parishes in the future.”
Commitment to community
While St. Stephen’s School enjoys a close relationship to the parish, it has strong engagement with the local community, as well.
In early August, the school hosts an outdoor movie night in the parking lot, complete with a large movie screen and food truck. “The event is for the school, parish and also the broader community,” Morri said. “It draws people to our campus as we have such a visible location facing Anoka’s Main Street.”
The school participates in Anoka’s famed Halloween parade, Riverfest and Ramsey County Days parade, as well as other community events, such as the Father Hennepin Festival parade in Champlin.
“Since we draw from so many communities, we want to be out there so people know we’re here,” Lysdahl said. “And we see families who belong to the school at these community events, which is wonderful.”
This commitment to community and to others starts back at St. Stephen’s, where a sense of kindness and caring is prevalent and helps form respectful, happy students. Their weekly “angel award” goes to a student spotted doing a kind deed.
“Our students become better people by seeing how to put others before themselves, learning the importance of sharing their gifts with others and being in such a loving community,” Beuning said. “Being a small school, the kids are able to grow in many different ways.”