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‘A Fresh Start’: St. Katharine Drexel Academy Opens in San Diego

Innovation a hallmark of diocese’s newest school

By Aida Bustos

SAN DIEGO — An innovative school has opened its doors in the Diocese of San Diego, combining students from two struggling schools and laying the foundation to potentially revitalize other distressed campuses.

The Office for Schools inaugurated St. Katharine Drexel Academy on Aug. 22 in the College Area of San Diego. It’s one of the highlights at the start of the 2018-2019 academic year that include:

• Mater Dei Catholic High School receiving the largest freshman class ever in its 58-year history, 257 students. And Cathedral Catholic High School’s freshman enrollment increasing by 63, for a total of 438.

• Launching a data dashboard that will give all schools’ leadership immediate information about their school, including academic performance and enrollment trends, allowing for timely decisions.

• Supporting more than 30 teachers  in the Beginning Teacher Academy, which shares expertise and resources for Catholic school teachers across the diocese.

The Schools Office coordinates education in 48 schools, from elementary to high school, serving more than 14,500 students this year. Around 160 of them began the academic year at Drexel Academy, which serves TK to eighth-grade students who previously attended Our Lady of the Sacred Heart and Blessed Sacrament Parish schools.

Two years ago, diocesan leaders decided to merge the two schools, which were two miles apart and had endured shrinking enrollment for years. That’s not all, however. They wanted to offer innovative instruction to strengthen the new school, which opened at the Blessed Sacrament site.

“The goal is for our school to thrive rather than just survive,” said its principal, Anne Egan.

Drexel has adopted a new teaching model, called blended learning, which combines traditional teacher instruction and computer technology to customize instruction for each student. The model is already being used at St. Mary School in Escondido and elements of it are being rolled out this school year at St. Rita School and St. Michael Academy.

It’s all part of a diocesan initiative, called Next Generation Catholic Schools, which focuses on science and blended learning to increase students’ achievement and prepare them for 21st-century workplace skills.

The instructional model was developed by Loyola Marymount University, whose personnel will train teachers at the participating schools how to implement it for the next three years.

Here’s how it will work. All students will be able to work on the day’s lesson via a mobile device, such as an iPad or laptop, which they will access through individual log-ins at technology stations in the classroom. They will move through the lesson at their own pace. The software will automatically adapt to them, making the content more challenging as students master it. The next time they log in, each student will be able to pick up where he or she left off.

The teachers, for their part, will have their own devices and will be able to track the students’ progress in real time, providing them with the individual support they need.

A number of teachers used this model last year during a pilot run at Blessed Sacrament and St. Mary’s. Egan said the participating students at Blessed Sacrament gained 1.5 to three grade levels in either math or reading or both by the end of the school year, as shown in STAR test results.

John Galvan, director of the diocesan Office for Schools, said the plan is to build on the participating schools’ experience and implement the new instructional model at other struggling campuses, particularly in the Mid-City area.

“We want to re-energize what we think are dynamic, diverse communities,” Galvan said. “Diversity is something we tout as a value in our schools.”

In the last year, a facilitator brought in by the diocese worked to bring the campus communities of OLSH and Blessed Sacrament together in preparation for the merger. The principal said that early numbers showed that about 90 percent of families from the two schools had decided to enroll in the new one, surpassing expectations.

Francine Galván’s family was one of them. Her son, Julio Gael, ended the fourth grade at OLSH and was ready to start fifth grade at Drexel on the first day of school.

“I’m excited,” said the 10-year-old as he waited for the opening bell. “I couldn’t even sleep.”

The mother sees a Catholic school as being very different than a public one. Her son learns discipline — and much more through his faith-based education.

“The kids are so noble,” she said. “They learn how to do the right thing because they are always thinking about God. You’re not going to learn that at another school.”

Monique Simpel also was on hand with her son, Parker, who previously attended Blessed Sacrament. She said that families have a lot of good options for their children’s education, but hers opted for a Catholic one.

“Kids are exposed to so many things these days,” she said. “In Catholic school, we can teach them to be kind, to be good people. And getting to know the other families is important.”

She called the new school’s opening “a fresh start.”

“We’ve been through some tough times, but I think we’re at a turning point.”

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