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A Catholic school turnaround in Florida’s rural heartland

Editor’s note: This story originally ran Sept. 28, 2015 on the redefinED blog, which is hosted by Step Up For Students, and is an education blog dedicated to recasting the way we perceive public education.

By Travis Pillow

Three years ago, when Donna Gilbert learned her husband’s job would be transferred to rural community in Florida’s agricultural heartland, she considered staying behind with her son, Christopher. She worried that if her family left St. Cloud, just south of Orlando, he would not be able to continue his Catholic education.

A visit changed her mind. She went to Sebring (Highlands County’s largest city, with a population just over 10,000) and met with Anna Adam, who was then in her second year as principal of St. Catherine Catholic School.Gilbert learned a string of small towns near the headwaters of the Everglades, where nearly one in three residents is older than 65, is home to the kind of turnaround story Catholic school supporters all over the country are hoping for.

St_-Catherine_art-class

Fifth-grade students learn about lines and perspectives during an art lesson at St. Catherine Catholic School in Sebring, Fla.

In five years, St. Catherine has doubled its enrollment. Its academics are getting stronger, too. It’s picking up buzz among parents, and proving the Catholic school renaissance is not just an urban phenomenon.

Since enrolling three years ago, Christopher is learning “all his skills and all his sacraments,” Gilbert said. This year, he started fourth grade reading at a fifth-grade level. Now, her main concern is what will happen when her son is ready for sixth grade. St. Catherine is the only Catholic school in Highlands County, and it only serves preschool and elementary-school students.

“Thank God we’re here,” Gilbert said. “I’m pushing them to add more grades.”

While enrollment numbers and test scores point to a transformation, visitors can find other signs in the school’s front office. Volunteers come streaming in to teach art classes and tutor struggling readers. Teachers and parents rave about how far the school has come, and how quickly.

“She just brought this school to life,” kindergarten teacher Adele Moye said. “She makes us happy, and we make the kids happy, and that makes the parents happy.”

Anna-Adam-300x225Adam started teaching nearly 40 years ago. After stints in Manhattan  and the Bronx, she has worked in Florida Catholic schools since 1989.When she took over at St. Catherine, enrollment languished at 53 students, and the school had cycled through four principals in four years. In the 2011-12 school year, she rallied teachers and started accepting tax credit scholarships, which help most of what are now 118 students afford tuition. (Step Up For Students, which employs the author of this post, helps administer the scholarship program.)Volunteers drawn from surrounding parishes provide the kind of support that has sustained successful Catholic schools for centuries.

Reading tutors like Marsha Durrua (who exclaimed “I love it!” after striding through the office door one Wednesday afternoon) help students get one-on-one or small-group attention.Mary Lou Herald teaches older elementary students to notice shapes, lines and perspectives in the world around them, in a series of beginning art lessons she calls “Let’s Take a Line for a Walk.”Adam said volunteers allow the school to offer richer, more effective instruction than its size would normally allow.“We work with each child at their level, and then work with them to bring them up to their capacity,” she said.

Fourth-graders take questions from a classroom visitor.

Fourth-graders take questions from a classroom visitor.

Now, the school is struggling with capacity of a different kind. Its main building is full. A handful of converted houses that dot its campus are also full — including a porch that was walled in this summer to create a new third-grade classroom.

Adam said she could picture a new, L-shaped building lining the edges of the adjacent church parking lot. Churches in neighboring towns might offer space for the middle school parents now want.

A sign out front reminds passers-by the school is open to people of all faiths, and Adam said she’s noticed the school has attracted families from a variety of religious backgrounds, many of them from various Protestant denominations that are common in the area.

“The fact that we’re a Catholic school evokes a sense of morality and stability for them,” she said.

Families, she added later, are drawn to the school for a simple reason: “We’re giving them the best­ education in town.”