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BY Marge Fenelon
RIVER EDGE, N.J. — Scoring a perfect 800 on the verbal section of the SAT is an impressive feat for any student who takes the test, but it was particularly impressive for Molly Fitzpatrick. She was only 13 and in eighth grade when she earned the score earlier this year.
Fitzpatrick took the SAT in January as part of program at Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth in Baltimore. She said she was surprised at her success, however, and that she didn't realize she was one of the top students at St. Peter Academy in River Edge, N.J.
“She thought she was just one of the kids,” said her father, Mike Fitzpatrick. “Molly was never put on a pedestal there. Everybody thought they had as much chance as anybody else to be a top student.”
That's because St. Peter Academy, co-sponsored by St. Peter the Apostle Parish in River Edge and Our Lady Queen of Peace Parish in Maywood, makes sure each of its students has every opportunity to excel.
“Our kindergarteners are just as challenged as our eighth-graders,” said Religious Teachers Filippini Sister Barbara Takacs. “Our kids have everything going for them. We have a well-rounded program that incorporates the skills and talents of each child, not just the better or above-average ones.”
To assure its academic quality, St. Peter Academy requires its students to take standardized tests yearly. Faculty members evaluate the test results and pinpoint weaknesses in the program or in students' individual learning capabilities. Then they come up with an aggressive plan to defeat any shortcomings, including assigning remedial work, personal encouragement, an honor-roll system, an annual science fair and incentives such as extra-credit projects.
Their efforts have paid off. The New Jersey Conference of Catholic Schools has instituted statewide core curriculum standards, and St. Peter consistently exceeds those standards. Consequently, many of its students go on to some of most highly rated universities in the country.
“St. Peter Academy is a very competitive school, “attested Molly Fitzpatrick, who is attending Bergen County (N.J.) Academy for the Advancement of Science and Technology this fall. “But they also teach at different levels. That makes it an all-around good school, because no matter what your talents, interests or skill level, you will do well there.”
St. Peter Academy faculty and staff focus on four different aspects of a student's nature: spiritual, intellectual, personal-social and physical.
Spiritually, the Catholic faith is integrated into every aspect of students' education. Whether they're studying religion, history, math or music, the students learn to connect everything to God.
Sacramental preparation and traditional Catholic teachings and practices are a priority at St. Peter Academy. Sacramentals such as holy water and statues are as much a part of daily life at the school as pencils and paper, observed Sister Joan Ferruggiaro, assistant superintendent of school visitations, who visits the schools in her district yearly.
“I have always found them to be academically and liturgically sound,” she said.
Every day at the academy begins with a Scripture reading, prayers and petitions over the intercom. During Advent, students light an Advent wreath and form a Jesse tree. In Lent they participate in the Stations of the Cross and a school-wide retreat.
The school holds a May crowning celebration and students recite the rosary daily during the months of May and October. Mass is celebrated every first Friday as well as on special occasions, and students are responsible for most of the liturgy planning. Additionally, there are many para-liturgical services when it's not possible or appropriate to have a Mass. Each school day ends with prayer.
“Let me tell you,” said Brother Ralph Darmento, deputy superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Newark, “Sister Barbara is very much a proponent of Catholic schools but more as a witness to the faith. Her style of education and administration is not values-based but faith-based.”
Students at St. Peter Academy owe their intellectual growth in part to the parents who belong to the Home and School Association, which has worked hard throughout the years to generate fund-raisers to keep tuition rates as low as possible and to provide the school with the tools of learning it needs.
St. Peter Academy boasts of well-equipped science and computer labs, a fully automated library, upgraded cafeteria, new carpeting, desks and chairs, and a fully air-conditioned third floor.
Molly Fitzpatrick knows a lot about how the faculty of St. Peter Academy help students to reach higher academically. She said she owes her SAT score to the tutelage of Sister Jean Gaeta, technology supervisor.
Sister Gaeta saw Fitzpatrick's potential and worked closely with her to develop it through interesting assignments and new avenues through which to showcase her talents. With Sister Gaeta's help, Fitzpatrick became the school's webmaster and editor of its newspaper, St. Peter's Press.
Teresa Donohue, president of the Home and School Association and a mother of three, said the personal-social attribute is one of the best fringe benefits St. Peter Academy has to offer.
She said the school has a unique atmosphere comprised of children from many surrounding towns and a faculty that is dedicated and stable. Most of the teachers have been at the school for a number of years.
“You can tell they're all happy to be here,” she said. “The school has a very happy, comfortable environment.”
The basis of that happiness is a well-formed conscience, according to Sister Takacs. Students are taught respect for self and others, leadership qualities, manners and social-interaction skills.
That's one of the main reasons, next to its academic record, that both the Fitzpatrick and Donohue families have sent their children to the academy. They saw children older than their own who had attended St. Peter Academy, admired their intellectual and interpersonal skills and wanted the same for their children. Now they find their children are the ones admired by the parents of younger children.
The physical attributes of the child are not forgotten. The physical and mental well-being of all students is fostered through physical exercise and the teaching of good health habits. Thus, all aspects of the child are considered.
River Edge dates back to pre-Revolutionary times and remained a farming community until the 1940s. Returning World War II veterans found it the ideal place to settle and raise their families. In June 1948, the new parish of St. Peter the Apostle was incorporated to serve the area's growing Catholic population.
Initially, Mass was held in Roosevelt School in River Edge; ground was broken for the church, school, convent and rectory in June 1950, but the buildings were not completed until September 1951. In June 1952 the services of the Religious Teachers Filippini were secured and the school, consisting of grades one to six, officially opened on Sept. 8, 1952. A time passed, grades seven and eight were added and, in 1961, the first class to have completed all eight grades graduated.
Our Lady Queen of Peace Parish began as a mission church in Hackensack called Holy Trinity. In June 1948, it was constituted as Our Lady Queen of Peace in Maywood, with the church being dedicated in December 1950. The school opened in September 1951 under the direction of the Religious Teachers Filippini with 565 students in all eight grades. In 1956, it reached its peak enrollment with 950 students.
Through the decades, both St. Peter the Apostle School and Our Lady Queen of Peace School experienced a decline in enrollments — as did many Catholic schools throughout the country. The situation was studied by the Archdiocese of Newark, and in 1992, both parishes were approached regarding a solution that would meet the changing need.
Co-sponsorship was chosen as the best course of action and the St. Peter the Apostle School facility was chosen as the more useful of the two. Since then, both parishes have shared equally in the support of St. Peter Academy with the pastors of both parishes taking an active roll in its administration.
“St. Peter Academy is a gentle yet strong place,” said Molly Fitzpatrick's mom, Judy. Her other daughter, Maggie, is a fifth-grader at St. Peter Academy. “The gentle environment of the school gives the children the strength they need to work and study. The small student-to-teacher ratio makes the children feel that they are getting enough attention, and this helps them to be more attentive. You just know that the staff cares about you and they care about your kids.”
Marge Fenelon writes from Cudahy, Wisconsin.