By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published June 20, 2013
DECATUR—St. Peter Claver Regional School is undergoing its biggest changes since the Decatur school opened, as primary grades are combined and educators introduce a technology-centered learning program, the Archdiocese of Atlanta Catholic Schools’ superintendent announced.
The new approach is designed to help a school financially challenged by low enrollment and also to raise its academic performance. A new principal begins in July to lead the school community.
“We are getting smaller to get stronger, leaner to get better,” said Superintendent Diane Starkovich.
The changes, which will be implemented in the fall, were spurred in part by the archdiocesan annual “viability index” that showed the school was not financially healthy and also by a need to improve academics, said Starkovich.
“The school is strong in Catholic identity. We are the teaching arm of the church. We can’t lose that focus. We are also called to deliver an academic education second to none. I’d like (parents) to see their children are being challenged appropriately” to ensure they can go to any high school of their choosing, she said.
St. Peter Claver opened as a regional school in 2001, merging schools at three parishes—Our Lady of Lourdes, St. Anthony of Padua in Atlanta and Sts. Peter and Paul in Decatur. It shares a campus with Sts. Peter and Paul Church. The small student body is predominantly African-American, with a growing number of Hispanic students. The school has classes from pre-kindergarten to eighth grade and attracts students from around the south metro Atlanta area. The median family income in the school’s zip code is $40,049, according to government estimates.
Father Bryan Small, pastor at Sts. Peter and Paul Church, said parents make a “profound sacrifice” to send their children to the school so it is important the school serve them well.
“There was a real opportunity to do something significant and set St. Peter Claver School apart from other schools,” he said.
“Everybody wants to see the school succeed,” said Father Small, who assisted in hiring a new principal.
Meetings with the school community raised many questions, but Starkovich said nearly 100 students have indicated they will return for the next school year, which tells her parents endorse the change. Last year, around 120 students attended.
“We will always invest in our schools. We always invest in St. Peter Claver. It is a special community. My job is to make sure we don’t close any school. I’m not going to close any school,” she said.
Implementing the changes is first-time principal Susanne Greenwood.
She has been a longtime literature teacher at Marist School in Atlanta and is finishing up her doctoral program in education at Kennesaw State University.
One of her central goals will be “to raise student achievement by raising expectations of all involved in the community of St. Peter Claver,” she said in an email.
She fell in love with teaching years ago after helping in a class with students learning English.
“I came home the first evening and said this is what I love,” she said.
Every child is born with an affinity for learning so when a teacher or administrator shares the love of learning, that shared enthusiasm can energize students, said Greenwood, who has been in the classroom for a dozen years.
At Marist, she’s been a mentor with the Reach for Excellence program, which is a tuition-free enrichment program for disadvantaged children, which prepares them over three middle school years to compete for college prep programs. Over 200 students have participated since 2001. And she welcomes the opportunity to work in a diverse school setting, she said.
Greenwood, who is 56, is the mother of two grown children. She and her husband, Brian, are active at St. Jude Church in Sandy Springs and live in Dunwoody. She’s made a commitment to be a regular parishioner at Sts. Peter and Paul Church, so she can get to know school parents and see children outside of the classroom.
Attracting students has been a challenge here. It takes at least 22 students per grade to ensure the school is financially sustainable. Only one grade last year made that enrollment mark.
Among the changes planned is that students in primary grades will be in shared classrooms, kindergarten with first grade, second grade with third grade, and fourth and fifth grades together.
Five staff members were not given teaching agreements for next school year as part of the reconfiguration.
To improve academics, students also will be participating in a new teaching format, one of the first in the archdiocesan schools. It’s called “blended learning,” which relies on students to supplement their classes with work done online. The school will focus on bettering student achievement in math and vocabulary.
The new format can help students, parents and teachers. The blended learning software is accessible through the Internet, which gives students the opportunity to work on assignments away from the classroom and even with parents. For teachers, this instruction gives a weekly analysis, which can be used to craft the class lessons to meet students’ needs.
The new instruction requires an investment in technology. The school is to receive some 80 computers to make this new instruction work, and the school’s wireless connection to the Internet was boosted so many students can access the Internet at the same time.
Another new approach will be at the afterschool program, which will be renamed to stress academic opportunities for students, along with additional school resources and opportunities to access online learning.
All these changes, Starkovich said, are to “hold everybody accountable” and to “deliver what we told the parents.”
For more information about St. Peter Claver Regional School, go to www.spc-school.org.