Catholic schools adjust to meet students’ needs

Ted Lakoski, the Head of the Lower School at St. Gabriel’s Catholic School in Austin, welcomes students on the first day of school. (Photo courtesy St. Gabriel’s Catholic School)

By Michele Chan Santos

As students began classes this fall in Catholic schools in the Diocese of Austin (CSDA), they may have noticed new approaches to teaching, as well as schools that are more responsive to children with learning differences.
Compelling change is happening throughout CSDA. “I’m excited about being able to investigate the needs of the schools and really meeting the needs of students in our community,” said Misty Poe, assistant superintendent of CSDA.
This academic year follows the successful Celebrating Catholic Schools 2013 event, which featured priest and celebrity chef Father Leo Patalinghug and raised more than $110,000 for school tuition assistance.
Blended learning
The Cathedral School of St. Mary in downtown Austin is experiencing one of the most dramatic changes. St. Mary has switched to a “Blended Learning Model,” where students in different grades are in the same class and each student has their own electronic device, provided by the school.
“Technology integration is occurring more and more in our schools with students participating in 1 to 1 iPad and laptop programs and Bring Your Own Device (BYOD),” said Dr. Ned Vanders, superintendent of CSDA.
Robert LeGros, the new principal of the Cathedral school (and most recently a teacher there for the last five years), explained that grades three and four will be together, as will grades five and six, and seven and eight. The students will be using Chrome books, laptops and netbooks. 
The Blended Learning Model “blends face-to-face learning with computer-mediated activities,” LeGros said. “This model keeps the children’s interest and is fast-paced.” The faculty and administration of the school spent most of last year researching this way of teaching. “We realized this would be the perfect model for our students,” LeGros said.
In the classroom, teachers will present a concept, and using their computers, the students will solve problems related to that concept. This approach “frees the child to grow and move at their own pace,” LeGros said. “It empowers the child to excel. Once they master a concept they can move on.”
The blended approach also teaches the students time management, interpersonal skills, creative problem-solving skills and decision making, he said.
One of the biggest advantages to this approach is allowing children at different levels to progress at their own pace. If a student has easily mastered the concept, he or she can move on to another area. A student struggling with the concept can receive one-on-one instruction to help them through it.
“The parents are excited,” LeGros said. “Our teachers are very well trained in this model.”
LeGros is one of seven new school leaders at CSDA. The other new principals are Morgan Daniels at St. Dominic Savio Catholic High School in Austin, Kelly Laster at Holy Family Catholic School in Austin and Mary Lou Anderle at Sacred Heart Catholic School in La Grange. At St. Gabriel’s Catholic School in Austin, Dan McKenna is the new Head of School and Ted Lakoski is the Head of the Lower School. Dr. Judith Knotts is interim Head of School at St. Michael’s Catholic Academy in Austin.
More inclusive
One of the long-term goals for CSDA is to make Catholic schools more accepting of students with learning differences, Poe and Vanders said. To that end, an increasing number of CSDA schools have academic language therapists on campus.
An example of a Catholic school working with students who have learning challenges is St. Louis Catholic School in Austin.
Heidi Pickerill is the reading and dyslexia specialist at St. Louis Catholic School. She is an integral part of the campus and has been working with students with learning differences at St. Louis for more than 14 years. Pickerill works four days per week.
This year, she will be teaching students using the renowned Take Flight program. The two-year program is designed to be taught four days per week, by a certified academic language therapist, for children with dyslexia age 7 and up.
“Our program is not label-driven, so I can work with any student who is struggling to gain literacy,” Pickerill said. “Many children who do not have a dyslexia diagnosis can still benefit from the Take Flight program.”
She loves her job.
“I tell people all the time that I have the best job. I get to witness all these big and little successes every single day. I can’t think of a better way to spend my day than to be on this literacy journey with these amazing children,” she said.
Billie Bagley, the counselor at St. Louis, said the great advantage of having Pickerill on campus is that it “allows students who want a Catholic education but who have a learning difference to still get a Catholic education. In the past, many Catholic schools didn’t offer these types of services. It’s a huge benefit of having her here on campus. All our teachers are willing to work with students who have different learning needs.”
Pat Romanies, principal of St. Louis, said the students and the parents seem to appreciate Pickerill’s role at the school.
“When Heidi gets to the classroom to pick up the children she works with, all the kids want to go with her. She is so kind and wonderful with the children. The parents love her and they are familiar with her and her program,” Romanies said.
At St. Austin Catholic School, the academic language therapist is Tara Cevallos. Cevallos evaluates and treats students with dyslexia and other learning differences; she works at the school 15 hours per week.
Barbara Kennedy, principal of St. Austin, said this hire came about because some time ago, a number of the St. Austin students were going to academic language therapy “either very early in the morning or in the evening. It’s an hour at a time, four days a week, it’s pretty intense.” A group of parents approached Kennedy to see if a language therapist could work at the St. Austin campus. 
“I’m excited to say we have hired her for the coming year,” Kennedy said. “She has so much knowledge and wisdom to help the kids. She is helping diagnose students early on and Tara has a wonderful toolbox of resources for the teachers.”
Another goal of CSDA is to increase the number of students attending Catholic schools in the Austin Diocese.
At the various Catholic school campuses, schools are creating “enrollment management teams,” Vanders said. “Enrollment is not just the job of the admissions director, but a team effort of teachers, parents and alumni. The teams are looking at their marketing and communications efforts to see where improvements can be made.”
One new technique is to get on the radar of young families by sending welcome letters to the parents of newly baptized babies at local parishes, saying “We’ve got a desk waiting for you in five years,” Vanders said.
Online, there are numerous ways to learn more about Catholic schools. The CSDA site,, is popular with families. The CSDA Facebook page (type Catholic Schools in the Diocese of Austin in the Facebook search field) also has photos and updates from schools all around the diocese.
Although by now most of the schools have already started classes, Poe emphasized that nearly all of the schools in CSDA have open enrollment, and it’s not too late to register for this academic year. 
“If you realize the school you are in is not a good fit, you can always apply to a Catholic school,” Poe said.