By ERIKA ANDERSON REDDING, Special to the Bulletin | Published December 7, 2017 | En Español
MARIETTA—It’s Sunday morning at St. Ann Church. In the dim lighting of a first-floor room, dozens of children sit on the floor. The students face the twinkling stars that form a constellation in the shape of a Chi Ro cross. A simulated space shuttle cockpit doubles as a stage. The children are mesmerized by their leader, who explains what they will learn in their individual rooms.
Today’s lesson—like every week’s—is based on the day’s Gospel reading. Following a worship song, the children eagerly make their way to their classrooms.
This is not a typical parish school of religion (PSR). This is not the CCD of the past. This is “Launch”—and it’s transforming the way the children of St. Ann are learning and growing in their faith. This space is where the future of the church is being built, child by child.
Launch is a completely new way of looking at how school-aged children learn about their faith. Attendance in traditional PSR classes was dwindling, said Jim Herrel, parish administrator.
“Nationally PSR was dying. Statistics show that since 2011, PSR attendance around the country has been reduced by 30 percent,” he said. “We needed to look at it and say ‘what are we doing wrong?’ And the truth is that we weren’t reaching kids where they are today.”
Herrel and other leaders at St. Ann, including Steve Botsford, director of religious education; Jennifer Vasquez, director of PSR; Jenny Kiehl, curriculum specialist; and LaSalette Father Ray Cadran, pastor, worked together to create Launch, a multilayered learning program for religious education.
“We wanted to create a curriculum that was connected to the liturgy,” Botsford said. “And then we looked at the classrooms, and they were dated. We needed an overhaul.”
The environment was key. The leaders knew it had to be exciting, welcoming and different. They worked with a company, Real-Fake Buildings, to create an entire new world for religious education.
“The first step was engaging them so they want to be here,” said Father Cadran. “But we didn’t want to just simply make eye candy. We wanted to make it integral to the curriculum.”
The entire downstairs classroom area of the parish has been transformed to create an immersive experience. Each section has various space-travel themes that would make even NASA proud. One wall is painted with the theme “Maintenance Access Hatch J-3 16.” Clever observers would realize this represents the verse John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life.”
The “Anti-Gravity Chamber” has a screen designed as a window into the chamber. There, various objects float by, including a baptismal font and tools.
No detail has been left out. A wall painted with stairs includes the Scripture verse of the Ascension of Christ. A “Space Suit Prep Room” includes the verse from Colossians in which God’s people are instructed to clothe themselves in “heartfelt compassion, in generosity and humility, gentleness and patience.”
In the individual classrooms, mobile furniture allows students to be comfortable. They learn via modern technology, such as iPads. Student-led learning is encouraged.
“This is not just teachers pouring knowledge into them,” Herrel said. “The kids are really involved in the learning process. This program is designed to meet the multi-intellectual levels of the kids. It says to them, ‘You’re important. This is your location.’”
And the program doesn’t stop when families pull out of the parking lot. The parish bulletin includes questions for parents to ask their children about what they’ve learned. This is part of Botsford’s mission—to create an environment for lifelong learning and formation.
“Parents are an integral part of this. We give them a home activity every week. And because it’s based on the Sunday readings, families are hearing the same message,” Botsford said. “This makes it go beyond just a Sunday obligation.”
The program is working. This year, there are 625 participants in the program for students in pre-K through the fifth grade. They also had to offer an additional third-grade class—historically a grade where attendance drops significantly.
“The kids call it Launch Day,” Father Cadran said. “They are excited to come here. The kids seem to be taking to it really well. You never hear them say, ‘boy was it boring.’ There’s a level of joy and excitement that wasn’t present before, and it’s awesome to see that happening.”
Each Launch lesson ends with a praise and worship session—complete with hand motions, and sometimes, dancing.
Herrel said all funding has been provided through the Archbishop’s Annual Appeal.
“We knew we needed to make an investment in our kids,” he said. “We could do nothing about it and continue to let it decline, or we could give it a fighting chance. We are a blessed parish when it comes to funding, but every parish could take a conceptual theme and make it work for them.”
Karen Leytze is a Launch leader. She also had a son in the kindergarten class.
“I taught last year, so it’s amazing to really see the different ways we are reaching the kids. It brings tears to my eyes to see the kids really learning and retaining,” she said. “It really helps me grow in my faith, too.”
Leytze’s parents, Joy and Tim Minister, teach with her.
“They ask a lot of questions,” Joy Minister said. “You can tell they’re really thinking about what they’re learning. I’m thrilled to see it.”
Her husband, an accountant, agrees.
“I’m a cradle Catholic. I was raised with the Baltimore Catechism,” he said. “I know economics. I know this wasn’t inexpensive. But in my opinion, it’s the best investment the parish could have made. It’s just awesome.”