St. Andrew: A Blue Ribbon ‘Lighthouse’

By Beth Donze, Catholic Schools Week, Clarion Herald

St. Andrew the Apostle Elementary School in Algiers has been named a 2018-19 “Blue Ribbon School of Excellence” by the eponymous non-profit that heralds exemplary international role models of elementary and secondary education.

St. Andrew the Apostle received Blue Ribbon Schools’ highest honor, becoming one of one of only 25 schools selected as “Lighthouse” places of learning. This latest accolade renews the Lighthouse status previously earned by the school in 2013.

Father John Talamo Jr., St. Andrew’s pastor, said he believes every Catholic school would benefit from Blue Ribbon Schools’ rigorous accreditation process – which helps schools identify their weak spots as well as their strengths  – because superior and ever-improving schools would attract more families to Catholic education.

“If (Catholic schools) are going to offer an education we need to be at the top of our game,” Father Talamo said. “What Blue Ribbon does is give us a set of goals and ideals to strive toward and attain, both spiritually and academically. The focus is not solely on academics – it’s the whole package. It includes every facet of education, including the support and the involvement of the parents.”

The pastor, a former high school principal himself, said his weekly meetings with school administrators to troubleshoot areas of campus weakness are bearing fruit: St. Andrew’s enrollment has increased steadily over the last six years, and the school is tied with one other school as Blue Ribbon’s most highly and frequently accredited schools.

“We can’t just have the status quo,” Father Talamo said. “I don’t give (the school’s administration) an option; we have to stay certified. It is key to what we’re doing here.”

Skills gauged quarterly

In operation since in 1953 at 3131 Eton St., St. Andrew accepts children ages 8 weeks through grade 7 and has a current enrollment of 440 students.

Blue Ribbon Schools began evaluating St. Andrew last spring, conducting site visits and launching a thorough survey of students, parents, faculty and staff probing school culture, the level of faculty and student engagement, campus spirit and curricular and extra-curricular satisfaction.

The survey heaped praise on St. Andrew’s high academic standards and dedication to teachers’ ongoing professional development, but also shed light on an area in need of attention: the importance of gathering regular skills data on every student – so teachers could tailor their instruction more effectively.

In response, starting this school year, students in grades K-7 are assessed quarterly in English/language arts and math.

“It gives us a snapshot of where they are and it helps us individualize instruction,” said Elizabeth Konecni, St. Andrew’s headmaster, noting that teachers meet with the school’s leadership team of six administrators to examine learning trends in each classroom.

“We look at the data and we put a plan in place to meet each student at their point of need. Then we teach, teach, teach and we see what the growth was,” Konecni said.

For example, when the fall 2018 assessments revealed that many third and fourth graders were weak in the area of fractions and second graders needed help with identifying “cause and effect” in reading comprehension, their respective teachers stepped up to the plate.

“Our teachers put a plan in place and taught (the targeted material) in small groups. As we move forward, we’re seeing some growth,” Konecni said.

“The teachers are really able to see what their students need and how they can fill those needs,” Konecni added. “We’re also growing together as a professional community with our teachers, so when we sit down for those meetings,  we’re really getting to know our instruction, we’re getting to know our students, and we’re  getting to know how we can better serve them in the classroom.”

Every teacher is mentored

The palpable culture of administrative and faculty cooperation, which includes the continuous and deliberate professional development of every teacher, “intrigued” Blue Ribbon Schools, Konecni said.

In addition to meeting two to three times a week with a curriculum coordinator to plan their math and reading lessons for the coming week, every teacher at St. Andrew is lovingly mentored by one of the six members of the leadership team. Mentors and their assigned mentees meet bi-monthly in a book club setting to discuss and implement new educational strategies. The mentors regularly visit their mentees’ classrooms, even teaching “model lessons” to their students when needed.

“Administration is on the same page with what’s going on in the classroom. We try to be in every single classroom, every single day, doing observations and seeing what’s going on in the campus,” Konecni said.

Blue Ribbon also lauded St. Andrew’s two-week summer institute, in which faculty and administrators received professional development training from a visiting expert and held an educators’ “garage sale” in which teachers were invited to bring in books and other classroom supplies to give to their colleagues at no charge. The summer institute concluded with faculty members working together to set up their classrooms and install age-appropriate libraries and math manipulatives in each.

“It really brought us together as a faculty before the school year even started,” Konecni said.

Lively, happy bunch

Such deliberate classroom engagement has produced a friendly and smiling student body that participates fully in school Masses and keeps its campus spotless by picking up trash whenever litter is spotted.

“When you walk through our campus, you will notice that students will stop when they see someone they’re not familiar with and tell them hello. I think that’s something that sets us apart,” said Katherine Houin, St. Andrew’s principal.

The positive tone is set at the student assembly each morning – once used as a time to do last-minute homework – and now seized as a time in which to foster St. Andrew’s Catholic identity.

 “Some days we start with music, other days we’re learning about presidents or the angels among us or reading (aloud) from novels. Every morning starts with something different,” Houin said. 

“Every morning we also teach a little bit about what it’s like to be a child of God and how we can give back to our community. We’ll take on a kindness challenge or a prayer challenge,” Houin added, pointing to lessons as simple as reminding students to show respect to adults by “looking them in the eye.”

Wide assortment of clubs

Supporting the positive spirit at St. Andrew is the school’s wide assortment of extra-curricular activities, all offered after school. In addition to the usual seasonal sports, students can join girls’ and boys’ soccer, swim team and take lessons in golf and dance. Other offerings include choirs for children in two grade divisions; complimentary guitar lessons offered by parish music director Greg Merritt; a Mission Club of about 25 fourth through seventh graders; a CYO that brings school and parish children together for Friday activities and a monthly Youth Mass beginning in the fifth grade; and a Bricks for Kids pre-robotics club for younger students. Two afterschool art clubs complement the weekly art lessons students receive as part of their weekly school curriculum.

Focus on Bayou State

Last October, St. Andrew unveiled its most recent enhancement: a STEM lab with a building and engineering section for younger students, and a focus on Louisiana’s environment for older students. The latter part of the lab features an aquarium with live frogs, maps and stunning photos of the state’s coastline and ecosystems. All grades go the STEM lab for a minimum of 45 minutes each week.

“We want it to keep it focused on Louisiana so the students can give back to Louisiana,” Konecni said, noting that future plans include cultivating marsh grasses that students will later plant in vulnerable areas of the coast.

Beth Donze can be reached at bdonze@clarionherald.org.

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