Secrets of the small but mighty schools

Written by Mary Beth Peabody

South Jersey Catholic Schools come in many shapes and sizes – from an intimate 139 students to a bustling 1,100. Not including pre-schoolers, South Jersey Catholic elementary schools range from 130 to 480. But size alone does not define success. Principals from four “small but mighty” diocesan elementary schools recently shared some of the reasons their schools thrive.

Flexibility and Targeted Academics

Principals see the smaller size as a distinct advantage for creative staffing and meeting students’ academic needs.

Cape Trinity’s Donna DiPasquale was ready to give up the full-time responsibility of eighth grade homeroom and multiple subjects. Instead of retiring, she moved to part-time status and teaches her favorite subject, English, to all seventh and eighth graders.

“Her ability is phenomenal,” said school principal, Sister Sheila Murphy SSJ, “especially with literature and writing. She raises students up, gets them to reach beyond [grade level].”

Since there are now two English classes in both seventh and eighth grades, DiPasquale’s class size has been cut in half. The smaller class size makes it easier for DiPasquale to work with students who may need extra help.

DiPasquale teaches all her classes in the morning, which leaves her afternoons free. The part-time salary helps the school manage costs, and students benefit from an outstanding teacher. The arrangement has worked so well the school now has part-time math and language arts teachers in fifth and sixth grades, allowing for smaller class sizes and more focused instruction. The school was able to staff an additional part-time teacher to help students with reading comprehension.

Sister Nancy Kindelan IHM, principal at Saint Teresa School in Runnemede, believes the smaller school size is a distinct advantage for students academically.

“Smaller classes mean a greater opportunity to work one on one with students,” she said, citing a safer, more comfortable environment and the opportunity to establish a better rapport with students and parents.

At Good Shepherd School in Collingswood, principal Don Garecht said, “[Our] students get many opportunities to work one on one with an instructor. I have two teachers I free up one period daily to [provide] extra help, organizational skills and homework help.”

A former high school math teacher, Garecht also loves being able to teach seventh and eighth grade math, something he probably could not do in a larger school.

“I do this to keep my hand in teaching. I also want our students in the middle school to receive a high quality math education.” Garecht said, noting that his seventh grade pre-algebra and eighth grade algebra classes are actual courses taught in high school. Garecht said his math students enter high school well prepared.

Dedicated Faculty and Staff

Sister Jerilyn Einstein FMIJ, principal at Guardian Angels School, is pictured with students and Father David Grover, pastor of Saint Clare of Assisi Parish Swedesboro. Photos by Jim McBride

Sister Jerilyn Einstein FMIJ, principal at Guardian Angels School, splits her time between two campuses (Gibbstown, Pre-K-third grade; Paulsboro, fourth-eighth grades).

“I am very blessed to have a wonderful staff who never fail to give their ‘all’ and even more,” said Sister Jerilyn, adding that she never has to worry when she is moving between buildings.

Sister Nancy feels equally blessed.

“Every faculty and staff member knows every student by name. We are a family,” she said.

Sister Nancy also praised the Saint Teresa faculty for being life-long learners. “They willingly choose to participate in professional development. When asked to try new things, they share ideas so enthusiasm grows,” she said.

Garecht summed it up when he said, “At GSS, we thrive on being a family.”

All four principals described their teacher/staff cohorts as close-knit, caring, family-like communities and attributed those qualities to their smaller size.

Pastoral Support and Catholic Identity

The most successful schools are those with strong pastor and parishioner relationships. The four profiled schools all feel supported by a host parish and pastor, which helps enhance Catholic identity in the schools. Guardian Angels students participate as a group in Sunday liturgies twice a month. In turn parishioners — even those without children in the school — attend school events, such as plays and talent shows.

“Parishioners love to see our children ‘in action’ and always comment on how well behaved and polite they are,” said Sister Jerilyn like a proud mother. She also acknowledged the unending support of pastor Father Dave Grover, whom she considers a partner in running the school.

Saint Teresa School, Runnemede

Although she is in her first year at Saint Teresa, Sister Nancy is developing a similar relationship with Holy Child pastor, Father Joseph Ganiel.

“Father Joe is very present to the school community… celebrating weekly Mass, teaching, visiting classes, working on projects around school and giving a high five to every student after Friday Mass.”

When an eighth grader was recently asked what makes Saint Teresa school special, her immediate reply was Mass on Friday, and she acknowledged that a lot of schools do not have a church nearby.

Like most Catholic schools, the “small but mighty” schools operate on a tight budget that must be meticulously managed. They succeed by creating supportive, faith-filled communities of teachers, parishes and families. The principals expressed pride in their schools — as Sister Nancy described it, heart and soul — and gratitude for the many blessings that keep the schools vibrant.