The idea revolved around dollar-store eyeglasses, highlighters and The Philadelphia Inquirer.
Principal Patricia Quinter liked the sound of it and gave the go-ahead. And that’s how “magic glasses” were born.
Gattinella purchased a couple dozen brightly colored eyeglass frames at the dollar store. With craft paper donated to the school, her first-graders created cases for their eyewear. Armed with a highlighter and a page or two of the newspaper, they were ready to get to work.
Searching through the Inquirer, they highlighted each word they recognized from a list of 300 they were supposed to know by sight. As the school year went by, they expanded their searches. Sometimes they looked for compound words where they only recognized a part of the whole. Sometimes they searched out particular parts of speech, like articles or contractions.
“They can make a real list of the words they know,” said Quinter.
“Then they can take those words and put them into phrases or sentences. They try to outdo one another.”
While Holy Name School — like its four sister schools in the diocese’s pilot program, Catholic Partnership Schools — relies heavily on phonics exercises and other activities that emphasize repetition and memorization, teachers at all five schools strive to keep things interesting for the students. In Holy Name’s kindergarten class, for instance, children use shaving cream to “write” letters of the alphabet and arrange them to form words like “cat” and “hat.”
“There has to be a certain amount of routine work that has to be done, but it’s that creative approach that keeps them actively engaged,” said Quinter.
Educators in the Catholic Partnership Schools face a number of challenges, points out executive director Sister Karen Dietrich, of the Sisters of St. Joseph.
Camden isn’t a large city — it has fewer than 80,000 residents. About 15,000 of them are school-age children. “Unfortunately,” Sister Karen said, “over the years, it has alternately been either the poorest city and/or the most violent city in the country, given its size and population.
“That stigma has radically impacted how children see themselves.”
She estimates that 90% of Catholic Partnership Schools families are below the poverty line.
Partnership schools are diverse, with a student population that’s roughly 60% Hispanic and 30% African-American. Holy Name School is about 80% Hispanic, with many students coming from families that do not speak English at home.
“It’s a challenge, when it comes down to reading a sentence or trying … to find a noun in a sentence, or a verb,” said Quinter. “One of our big thrusts … over the years is trying to improve the reading comprehension, because it follows through in all the content subjects.”
Activities like “magic glasses” are integral to educational programming at the Catholic Partnership Schools, not only because they put a fun twist on typical reading exercises, but they start to change the children’s self-perception, Quinter said.
“By doing little games like this, little activities like this, the self-confidence is unbelievable,” she said. “The reading starts to take off. As the year goes on, they start to pull it all together.”
Like many dioceses across the country, the Diocese of Camden has been challenged with school closures and enrollment declines. According to the bishop’s commission report on the diocese’s Catholic schools, the diocese had 54 Catholic elementary schools and an enrollment of nearly 14,000 in 2005. By 2014, the number of schools had dropped to 28, and enrollment had plummeted 42%.
But by that point, the diocese had already begun to move in new directions to try to preserve Catholic educational opportunities. For example, the Catholic Partnership Schools pilot program, which includes the five Catholic schools in the cities of Camden and Pennsauken, launched in 2008.
And more new approaches are in the works. Starting next year, pastors will pool their resources in a new centralized funding approach designed to get all parishes — no matter how large or small their schoolchildren population — to support Catholic education, said Superintendent Mary Boyle.
A new School Action Committee, comprised of personnel from different diocesan offices, keeps a close eye on the diocese’s struggling schools and determines the action steps the diocese needs to take to help them. A new communications and marketing manager focuses on the value of Catholic education.
“[Regarding] people who are called to religious life and the priesthood, and those who are called to work in the Church as laypeople — the highest percentage of them come from Catholic schools,” said Boyle. “We have to recognize that and think about the future of the Church.”
By the Numbers
Partnership personnel all keep a close eye on measurable improvements in their students, and though they continue to strive for ever greater growth, they like what they’re seeing so far.
“What we know is that when our little guys start with us, they may be eight points below the national norm average [in reading],” said Sister Karen. “This past spring, our eighth grade was at the national norm average. That is quantitative. We’re closing the gap significantly.”
Also quantitative: Catholic Partnership Schools’ eighth-graders’ reading proficiency is at 85%, compared to the public-school district’s 32% — and the nation’s 36%.
Devoted teachers (the Partnership teacher-retention rate is nearly 90%) and constant brainstorming for new approaches are largely responsible for that gap shrinking, but outside supporters play a large part, too. John Langan and his wife, Judy Nadell, co-founders of Townsend Press, donate two books each month to every single Catholic Partnership Schools student. When the children receive a new book, Townsend Press also sends along a teacher to read the first chapter aloud to the kids in the classroom, stoking their enthusiasm for the story. Each summer, every student also receives three books to read over the break.
“One little girl [told me] she has a library at home,” said Sister Karen. “There had been no books at home; even if she had 10 books that were hers, [she thought] that was the greatest thing. It’s huge.”
Register correspondent Elisabeth Deffner writes from Orange, California.