Prekindergarten through first grade were good years for the little girl with the big smile, her mother recalled. But by second grade, there were signs of struggle.
“We started getting called in for conferences,’’ Melody Rodriguez said. “I had always heard, ‘She’s wonderful. We love her.’ ’’
But now teachers also were telling her Shawnay was having a hard time with reading and math.
So the single mom devoted more time toward sharpening Shawnay’s skills. They shared books and focused on telling stories to bolster Shawnay’s reading comprehension and memory. They practiced addition and subtraction relentlessly. Still, a third-grade state assessment showed Shawnay wasn’t improving – she was falling further behind.
“And I said to myself, ‘If she’s struggling now, in elementary school, what’s going to happen in middle school?’ ’’ Melody said. “I’ve got to see if I can turn this around.’’
Mother and daughter continued to study together. But when Shawnay started sixth grade last fall, they agreed to try something new.
Melody had heard about Sacred Heart Catholic School, a small, private school in Pinellas Park and part of the Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg school system. She soon learned Shawnay qualified for tuition assistance through Step Up For Students, which helps administer the means-tested Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program.
Everything was falling into place for Shawnay’s fresh start.
“I just knew I wanted a different direction for her,’’ Melody said. “I wanted her to be exposed to a different way of learning.’’
Melody was impressed with Sacred Heart’s friendly atmosphere and commitment to academic excellence – for every student. She found the school’s religious foundation also was appealing.
“They really understand that there are students who don’t learn the same way,’’ Melody said.
Shawnay spent a day shadowing a student at her new school, where she immediately noticed a more caring attitude among peers and staff. Students weren’t taunting each other in the halls. Teachers were funny – and supportive. Today, they are among her most vocal cheerleaders, letting her know how much time she has left when taking standardized tests and not making everything about her performance.
“There was a lot of pressure at my old school,’’ where class sizes were about double Sacred Heart’s 12 to 15 students per teacher, Shawnay said. “That’s really better for me because in a big class, I get really nervous.’’
Now she’s confident enough to raise her hand, even when she’s not sure she has the right answer. Shawnay is so comfortable at her new school, she willingly tries new things – like track.
“I’m not very good at it,’’ she said, but that isn’t keeping her from trying out for the soccer team.
She still has some catching up to do in reading and math, her mom said, but Shawnay has her eye on a career creating computer games or maybe becoming a scientist or veterinarian. Science is her favorite class.
“In science, you never stop learning,’’ she said.
Now she’s in a place where she has a good support system to help fulfill those dreams.
At Sacred Heart, more than 50 percent of middle-school students are reading at a high school level, Principal Heather Boyle said. Second-graders, who have been at the school since kindergarten, are using a phonics-based system and have gained two years of learning in one year.
The school invested in Samsung tablets and is applying for a grant to purchase Chromebooks so students can keep pace with advanced technology. There’s also an effort underway to start an early-learning program at the school.
In addition, Sacred Heart is one of five schools in the nation taking part in a pilot project through the University of Notre Dame’s prestigious ACE Academies. ACE (Alliance for Catholic Education) focuses on strengthening Catholic schools and the communities they serve through intensive academic and advancement programs.
At Sacred Heart, ACE has helped beef up the school’s reading curriculum, enrollment – even professional development – with the addition of an on-site coordinator, and teaching and learning specialists. ACE is where Boyle received her administrative training before taking the helm at Sacred Heart two years ago.
Since then, enrollment has grown 40 percent, she said, with 235 students in pre-K through eighth grade. Of those students, 137 receive the tax credit scholarship.
Shawnay is grateful to be among them.
“I think the scholarship gave me a chance …’’ she said.
About Sacred Heart Catholic School, Pinellas Park
Sacred Heart Catholic School is a small, private, pre-K through eighth grade school affiliated with a neighborhood church in Pinellas Park. Five nuns opened the school in the fall of 1959 with 50 students for three grade levels. For two decades, it continued adding grades and now serves pre-K through eighth grade. It has 235 students, 137 of whom use the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program. The school, part of the Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg school system, is accredited by the Florida Catholic Conference. Students take the national Iowa Tests of Basic Skills annually. Tuition for the 2014-15 school year is $4,700.