St. Charles Borromeo Catholic School in Orlando: Where everyone is welcome

By GEOFF FOX

In a middle school science room at St. Charles Borromeo Catholic hangs a quote from Albert Einstein: “You never fail until you stop trying.”

Another poster says, “Everyone is welcome here. Everyone belongs.”

Around teacher Barbara Schirard’s classroom are other posters showing the Periodic Table of Elements and the Earth’s solar system. On a recent fall day, the class was in the middle of a biology lesson.

“What is an internal stimulus?” Schirard asked.

“Feelings of hunger,” a student said.

“What is an external stimulus?” Schirard asked.

The class was quiet for a few moments.

“Remember when I dropped a book and it made you all flinch?” Schirard said. “That’s an external stimulus.”

The students at the Orlando, Florida, school nodded.

Principal Nathan Nadeau smiled as he watched.

“We’re a very good, diverse school,” Nadeau said. “You look at the population of Orlando and we’re a pretty good mirror (of the demographics). We have rich, not-so-rich and middle-class students. We have Vietnamese, Hispanic, African-American and white students.”

Of the 330 students at St. Charles Borromeo, 111 are on the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program for lower-income families, while five students are on the Gardiner Scholarship program for students with certain special needs. Both scholarship programs are managed by Step Up For Students.

The school shares a 20-acre tract with Bishop Moore Catholic School, a private high school where about 85 percent of St. Charles Borromeo graduates attend, and Morning Star Catholic School, which serves students with special needs. The campuses surround St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church located along the picturesque southwest shore of Little Lake Fairview.

According to Nadeau, the atmosphere is so inclusive that some students at St. Charles Borromeo elect to have physical education classes with their peers at Morning Star.

“They’re like a big community,” said Linda Caldwell, a marketing director in the Diocese of Orlando’s Office of Catholic Schools. “What I like is the diversity, all sorts of different kids add to the richness” of the environment.

“Nathan’s wonderful,” Caldwell said. “You can tell he loves the children. He is a very strong principal and doing tremendous work.”

In Holly Tulbert’s middle school English and language arts classroom, vocabulary words are written on a white board: desert, hover, wrath, envy and kleptomaniac. A sign on an adjacent wall reminds students that nouns are “words that names, persons, places and things,” while adjectives “describe nouns and pronouns.”

Still, the classroom is decorated to inspire teenage students.

In a corner stands a large cardboard cutout figure of Legolas, the expert archer from “Lord of the Rings.”

Outside the middle school building on this day, students spent their recess playing soccer in the grass and basketball on an outdoor court. Nearby, a group of students jumped rope.

“Ready, set – jump!” called one girl as another leapt between whirling ropes.

Besides its thriving academic environment, the school has basketball, soccer, track, volleyball and flag football teams that participate in the Catholic Youth League organized by the Diocese of Orlando.

At St. Charles there are 24 classrooms, 20 teachers and 40 employees. This year, 110 new students enrolled at St. Charles, an 11 percent increase over 2016-17.

“There’s a perception that when families come here, nobody pays tuition,” Nadeau said. “But we hold them to the fire to pay (the balance of FTC or Gardiner scholarships) – even if it’s $50 a month. Everybody here has a buy-in or a stake.”

That includes Nadeau, 36, principal at St. Charles since 2014.

One of the school’s five Gardiner scholars is his son Dominic, a 10-year-old fifth-grader. Nadeau’s daughters, Olivia, 8, a third-grader, and Clare, a 4-year-old preschooler, also attend St. Charles Borromeo. Olivia and Clare do not receive scholarships. Nadeau’s wife Mariana Nadeau teaches chemistry at Bishop Moore.

Nadeau’s experience as a father of a child with special needs “gives him a better understanding of what families need,” Caldwell said.

Dominic was medically diagnosed on the autism spectrum at age 5.

“He couldn’t talk at a year and a half, not one single word,” Nadeau said of Dominic. “Everyone tells you he’s fine, but you have to trust your gut. We got him into language therapy. He still gets language therapy twice a week, through Gardiner. He also learns social skills through camps at the YMCA. There are therapists there who work with small groups of kids at the camp, and (the therapy) is also covered by Gardiner.

“An autistic kid can do anything, but they have to be taught,” he said. “You have to teach them about things like personal space.”

While there are relatively few students with special needs at the school, parent Alfredo Ortiz said other students seem to understand they are not all alike and there are no issues with bullies. His son, Christian, a fourth-grader, is also on the autism spectrum and receives a Gardiner Scholarship through Step Up.

“The scholarship has been amazing,” Ortiz said. “Our son has some challenges, but the school has been accommodating and encouraging, but challenging at the same time. He’s been there since the middle of first grade. He was at another Catholic school, but we felt he needed a fresh start at a school that would understand his needs.

“It’s been night and day,” he said. “We’ve been so blessed. The atmosphere at the school is amazing. They’re very disciplined. The teachers are professionals and dedicated.”

Ortiz said Christian was previously bullied at a different Catholic school, but that ended at St. Charles Borromeo.

“Christian is a child with challenges and sometimes he reacts differently than the others,” Ortiz said. “When they do a fire drill he might get rattled with all the noise, but the kids and teachers work well with him. When they go on field trips they’re always looking out for him.

“They encourage him and his social skills have developed tremendously. He’s very funny and outspoken, and they gravitate toward him. When he needs his space, they give him his space. The administrators are willing to accommodate the school to the needs of the students, not the other way around.”

Geoff Fox can be reached at gfox@sufs.org.

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