By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published July 19, 2022
DECATUR—St. Peter Claver Regional School and the Christ Child Society continue their collaboration that began in 2015. What started with an eye toward erecting a butterfly garden on campus has turned to improving literacy inside the school building.
From buying all 74 books off the library’s wish list to paying for a summer enrichment camp to combat summer learning loss, the Atlanta chapter of the Christ Child Society has made supporting the small school in DeKalb County one of its largest initiatives. It had also worked on similar programs at Our Lady of Victory School, which closed in the spring.
Transforming the school
Media Specialist Kathy Schenck said the member volunteers look for opportunities to help, including sitting to read with students, restacking books on the shelves and refreshing bulletin boards. Their efforts have transformed the school with resources for the students, she said.
The library walls turned from a hospital brown to upbeat colors, not out of place in a Dr. Seuss book setting, thanks to a financial gift from the organization. A member who is an interior designer guided Schenck how to paint the walls with accent features to make it pop.
The members do not wait to be asked, but look for gaps to fill, said Schenck, who has had the part-time position for four years and is moving on to the new St. Mary’s Academy, Fayetteville. The donation of $1,200 for the wish list books came from a casual conversation with one of the many volunteers who spend time at the school, she said.
Math and reading initiative
The leaders of the Atlanta chapter of the national Christ Child Society recently announced proceeds from a goal-breaking fundraiser would enhance literacy at the school. Principal Susanne Greenwood accepted a $30,000 grant from the group on behalf of the school. The literacy program was expanded to help students gain academic ground in both math and reading.
Testing results and pandemic learning slides from students transferring from public schools show the need for this extra assistance, Greenwood said.
When a similar project started with reading, students saw an almost 10% gain in reading scores in one year, looking at test results, said Greenwood.
The goal of the year grant is to track the progress of students with math skills, from the start of the year to gauge growth and mastery of the subjects, she said.
Longtime teacher Dr. Annette Howell will be the math coach working with students, identifying weaknesses and giving teachers best practices and resources to match learning styles. After retiring with nearly 30 years in education, Howell stepped in during the spring to fill a vacancy with primary grades at the school.
From her classroom experience, Howell said she saw how students absorbed new material when they got extra instruction in weak areas. Parents were also more engaged after seeing their children succeed, she said. Students now interact with learning as if playing a game, like keeping score to compete with peers.
“They are learning without even realizing they are learning,” she said. “The students appreciate the little things you do for them.”
Mentors in school
The school is the smallest in the Atlanta Archdiocese system. It is expecting to enroll some 135 students, pre-K to 8th grade. Close to half are multilingual learners, with English, Spanish and Burmese the common languages spoken by students. About six of 10 households in the surrounding neighborhood earn incomes below $50,000.
This initiative is the latest outreach by the Christ Child members. The organization pays for the school’s enrichment learning camp. The camp began five years ago. About 50 students filled up all the slots as they spent eight days at the school during the summer vacation.
Barbara Miller, one of the society’s co-presidents, said the ties between the organization and the school allow its members to live out the mission.
“It’s been a gift to us,” she said.
The members give generously to school projects knowing Greenwood will act as a good steward to ensure it best helps students, she said. Worshippers at Holy Spirit Church, Atlanta, and All Saints Church, Dunwoody, hold second collections for the Atlanta chapter each year.
In addition to the volunteer work, the chapter sponsors a Christmas lunch each year. Every student receives a present of a gift-wrapped new book, chosen by the classroom teachers.
Atlanta Society nears 20th anniversary
The local group received its charter from the National Christ Child Society in Rockville, Maryland, in 2004. The group has grown to more than 120 members from many parishes.
The pandemic halted one of its key services, rocking infants at Grady Hospital’s Special Care Nursery, while they still assemble and distribute layettes of baby care items to mothers in need.
Mary Virginia Merrick founded the organization in 1887 in Washington, D.C. Merrick’s parents died when she was young, and she raised her siblings. Partially paralyzed by a fall at the age of 14, Merrick started the charity to help others struggling with poverty in the post-Civil War years. In 2003, the Vatican declared “Miss Mary” a Servant of God.