By S.L. Hansen
(SNR) - The Diocese of Lincoln’s 33 Catholic schools are bustling once again. More than 7,600 students have launched into a new school year with a clean academic slate, excitement about extracurricular activities, renewed friendships, fresh uniforms and a lot of hope.
Each of the diocesan schools has worked through the summer to make changes and improvements so that every student gets the maximum benefit of a Catholic education. Several have undertaken special initiatives that will have a huge impact over time.
St. Cecilia in Hastings: Strategic Plan
St. Cecilia Middle and High School in Hastings will be implementing a new strategic plan this fall. Since January, a committee has been hard at work on the plan, which builds on the good foundation laid in the past while sharpening focus on the future.
Father Thomas Brouillette, superintendent since 2011, led the committee. Other members included administrators, faculty, staff and parents, as well as the pastors of both Hastings parishes: Father Joseph Walsh of St. Cecilia Parish and Father Michael Houlihan of St. Michael Parish, who also serves as dean of students.
“Part of moving the school and the board forward was to get our strategic plan in place so we could remain financially solvent, increase enrollment, continue academic excellence and offer students opportunities to encounter Christ in multiple ways,” Father Brouillette stated.
The Meitler Group was hired to survey students, parents, faculty, staff, administrators and representation from the community.
“They were able to help us organize nine specific areas to move forward,” Father Brouillette reported.
He is grateful that so many people were helpful with the process.
“We had a ton of cooperation not only with the committee but with faculty, parish counsels from both parishes, both pastors, parents, and community members,” he said.
The new strategic plan provides focus on issues such as the school’s vision and mission (Catholic identity), enrollment, financial stability, faculty development and more.
Father Brouillette said, “We had taken a hard look at ourselves a few years ago, so there were not a lot of surprises.”
For example, the school had identified a need to increase enrollment back in 2000, and various tactics have already helped grow the student population. Under the new strategic plan, the school will redouble those efforts and reach out to parishes throughout the deanery.
Father Brouillette welcomes the opportunity to showcase the advantages of choosing St. Cecilia Middle and High School.
“We educate the whole person,” he said. “It’s so critically important that our students have a formation not only academically but spiritually, an effective education in virtue and the teaching of Christ.”
Now all that is left is a bit of fine-tuning prior to a Sept. 10 meeting where the strategic plan will be officially presented.
“It’s a five-year plan with a 10-year window,” Father Brouillette said. “It’s going to take time, but if we didn’t’ have a vision or a direction, we would never get there. And the ultimate direction is eternal life. “
Sacred Heart in Falls City: Improving Facilities
There was a time when the gymnasium at Sacred Heart School in Falls City was the envy of every other school in the state.
“It was the best basketball court and auditorium in the world,” Msgr. Robert Roh, superintendent, said. “And – hold onto your chair – it was built in 1924.”
Times have changed, and with those times came Title IX in 1971, launching team sports for girls. With double the teams and double the athletes, the school started using the city auditorium for games and running practices back-to-back so that both boys and girls had time on the court.
Meanwhile, the school has grown. Students come from all over the area, including Rulo, Arago, Dawson and Shubert. Some parents from little towns in Kansas and Missouri cross state lines to give their kids Catholic education at Sacred Heart as well.
For the families who live some distance away, staying in Falls City for two after-school sports practice sessions means getting home well past 7 p.m. on school nights.
Then there was the problem with the lunchroom.
Years ago, students ate their lunches in the old gym, but food safety standards forced a change in the 1970s. Since then, students have been using the parish hall, which is across a fairly busy street, down a flight a stairs and so cramped, there isn’t adequate space for a modern automatic dishwasher.
Herding children across a busy street isn’t ideal for safety, particularly in bad weather. When the temperature is well below freezing, children stay in their classroom and lunch is brought to them.
In his 27 years as superintendent, Msgr. Roh has helped the faculty and staff ensure that each child is given top quality academic and spiritual education. Now the time has come to improve the facilities as well.
Fundraising came first, to ensure that the school had enough reserves to stay financially solvent for at least three to four years, as well as to start the building project.
“We have had very successful fundraising,” Msgr. Roh said, ”The alumni have been very, very helpful… but we still have some to go.”
On the last day of school last spring, ground was broken to build a new activity center, kitchen and commons area. Since the brick structure of the 1924 gym is perfectly sound, it is being revamped inside to become a modernized auditorium.
Outside, there will be stations of the cross in a 25-foot long prayer garden, which Msgr. Roh anticipates will be a useful aid for religious education.
He is pleased to see these changes coming just in time for a school milestone.
“Next year we will be celebrating our 125th birthday,” he said. “We hope to be finished in July.”
St. Mary in Lincoln: STEM Coaching
This will be the second year that eighth graders at St. Mary School in Lincoln will participate in Ec3 Academy, a privately funded non-profit program that boosts each student’s education in – and comfort level with – Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) subjects.
“Ec3 stands for education through the development of courage, character and confidence,” explained Dan Alberts, founder of the program.
A civil engineer and life coach, Alberts developed Ec3 about 18 months ago because he is concerned that not enough high school graduates are truly prepared for college.
“Only about 30% of Lincoln high school graduates are ‘college ready’ as defined by ACT (American College Testing, Inc.),” he said. “We must get better.”
The core idea, Alberts stated, is to, “elevate the learning rate of students in the STEM subjects, using one-on-one coaching techniques to teach students character traits such as courage, tenacity, resilience as they learn.”
During the 2013-14 school year, Alberts was looking for a class of eighth graders to serve as a pilot group. Dr. Nina Beck, St. Mary School’s principal, was the first to volunteer.
Unlike their regular classroom studies, students get one-on-one coaching to help them perform effectively during tests. Also, they are encouraged to solve problems in their heads, without benefit of paper, pencils or calculators.
Scott Bendler, an eighth-grade teacher at St. Mary School, was very pleased with how Ec3 impacted his students.
“I saw test scores rise in social studies,” he said. Even better, there was a definite increase in confidence.
Alberts recalled how one of the Saint Mary students was asked to demonstrate what he had learned to a potential donor – a successful electrical engineer. The donor was so impressed with the student’s ability to calculate a response on the spot, Alberts said, “He told the young man to look him up when he graduates from college.”