St. Mary's School reviews possible change to “Catholic Classical Education” teachings – WatertownDailyTimes.com


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CANTON — A proposal to move St. Mary’s Catholic School from a modern education model to what is called “Catholic Classical Education” is being met with some resistance, especially by one of the school’s education council members.

Council member Jessica A. Lawrence is the mother of a second-grader at the school, 2 Powers St. She said that following a 2½-hour meeting Tuesday night, the council, after receiving the proposition in December, voted to keep the school open for one more year under the current standards of education in the state.

But she felt that moves are being made to pursue the classical model, despite the vote and without seeking input from parents.

“No parents have been aware of this and the education council was not made aware of this until the end of December,” Ms. Lawrence said. “Teachers were notified of this the day school let out (for Christmas break). There were lots of tears. People are worried.”

In a Jan. 8 email to the council, Joshua Parker, owner of Parker’s Real Maple, along with Seth and Amanda Conklin, Kelly Deschamps, Devon Sutton and Alee Parker, attached a signed, four-page letter explaining why they believe Catholic Classical Education is the best path for the school.

The letter stated that in October, St. Mary’s pastor, the Rev. Bryan D. Stitt, was introduced by a visitor to Canton to the idea of the change..

Hearing of the interest in the change by Mr. Parker and the others, and “faced with the unanimous decisions by the Finance and Parish councils to recommend the closure of the school,” the pastor encouraged the group to make a proposal, the letter said.

Ms. Lawrence said she was disheartened that the council found out only three weeks ago and that no families have been notified of the issue.

While others who expressed their displeasure declined to go on the record, Ms. Lawrence said she hopes that now she has raised the issue, parents will voice their concerns at the council’s next meeting, set for 6:45 p.m. Tuesday in the school’s main office.

“At the end of the meeting Tuesday, the council voted 6-1 in favor of keeping the school open as is for one more year,” Ms. Lawrence said. “Father Stitt, however, is going forward with the Catholic Classical Education and proposing it to the bishop . . . despite the board not saying we are for it.”

Father Stitt told the Times Friday that no moves have been made beyond the proposal and that he will discuss it next week with Bishop Terry R. LaValley. No decisions can be made without the bishop’s approval, Father Stitt said.

“We had not had a meeting about this yet but there’s a lot more to come,” Father Stitt said.

But he said there is “a lot of excitement. There’s a lot of energy right here on the ground. There’s a lot of emotion on the ground as well right now.”

“I am hoping that there will be more to share in the near future,” Father Stitt said. “I think the story gets a lot more interesting sometime in the future.”

An email, signed by Father Stitt and school Principal Michele A. Meyers , sent Saturday to the families of St. Mary’s, stated: “It has come to our attention that an article being written about St. Mary’s School may be published tomorrow (Sunday) by the Watertown Daily Times. We want you the parents and parishioners of St. Mary’s to hear from us directly about the big developments that the article will try to introduce.

“You may or may not be aware that St. Mary’s School has been facing some serious financial and enrollment challenges in recent years. In light of this situation the Parish, Finance, and Education Councils have gathered information on the sustainability of the school.”

The email continued:

“The options are still being considered, and a decision from Fr. Bryan Stitt and Bishop LaValley has yet to be made. Unfortunately, this article has necessitated this message.

“Parents are being invited to attend a meeting this Wednesday, January 16 at 6:45 p.m. in the school gymnasium where we hope to share more details about our vision for the future of our beloved school,” the email concluded.

The group advocating for the transition to the Catholic Classical Education said the idea arose from their concern about the future of Catholic education in Canton, with Mrs. Meyers likely to retire at the end of the school year.

A call seeking comment from Mr. Parker was not returned and an email seeking comment from Mrs. Conklin, who is St. Mary’s campus minister and advancement director, was not immediately answered.

“The Classical Education model is time-tested, freeing our teachers and students to dive deeper than the state standards,” the letter to the board stated. “With this comes the liberty for our leadership and teachers to adopt a classical curriculum that focuses on the development of the student — body and soul — by immersing them in the greatest thoughts and works ever formed throughout salvation history.”

That would include art, literature, poetry, mathematics and the sciences, and “finally connecting it all through the lens of divine revelation in Scripture, our students will be given the fullest opportunity to grow in wisdom, virtue, and discipleship.”

The group wrote that other Catholic schools around the country to which it has reached out — schools that were on the brink of closing but made the transition to the classical model — are now flourishing.

“We would be the only school within a three-hour radius that offers this unique and rigorous curriculum,” the proposal reads. “This presents us with the opportunity to effectively develop a marketing and fundraising plan that offers something intrinsically different from the public schools in our area. This opens up a greater ability to reach students in surrounding areas, as well as in our own.

Ms. Lawrence said while that might work in areas with a larger population, the classical model would likely not improve the diminishing enrollment at St. Mary’s.

In fact, she said, it would hurt St. Mary’s, which is one of a dozen Catholic schools in the Diocese of Ogdensburg.

She said of the 11 students in the second-grade class, her daughter is one of only two who are Catholic.

If the school were to change its model of education, Ms. Lawrence said, she, along with other parents she has spoken with, would remove their children from the school.

“The school is 50 percent Catholic right now,” Ms. Lawrence said. “To me, this model seems way more religious than anything we have now. So where are they getting these people? Because I don’t see any non-Catholics seeing this and wanting to attend.”

She added that she felt the council was presented with only two options: to adopt the classical model or close.

Sister Ellen Rose Coughlin, superintendent of Catholic schools, said while there’s been no change in the status of St. Mary’s School, the diocese is consistently looking at curriculum issues related to the viability of the school.

“We expect our schools to maintain diocesan policy and part of diocesan policy is certainly adherence to the adaptation of New York State standards as we integrate them with the values of our Catholic faith,” Sister Coughlin said. “So that’s our position on any one of our schools.”

Whether the Catholic Classical Education model fits within the state standards is a question under review by St. Mary’s Education Council, Father Stitt and Principal Meyers, who will then make their recommendation to the diocese, Sister Coughlin said.

“We will evaluate the merits of their recommendation,” she said. “We want to make sure our schools maintain the standards that they currently have. We will evaluate any suggested change in light of those standards.

To read the full Catholic Classical Education proposal issued to the St. Mary’s School Education Council, visit: http://wdt.me/CXP8pr.

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