Mahtomedi Catholic school takes risks, finds niche

  • Article by: ANTHONY LONETREE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 2, 2013 - 8:39 PM

To attract more students, St. Jude of the Lake Catholic School has set out to offer an International Baccalaureate program and enhanced technology.

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Principal Jennifer Cassidy talked with third-graders, including Savanah L’allier, left, about PowerPoint presentations they were working on at St. Jude of the Lake Catholic School in Mahtomedi. The K-8 school, in operation for 60 years, is being creative with its offerings to reverse an enrollment decline.

Photo: Joel Koyama, Star Tribune

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To be an International Baccalaureate (IB) student requires one to be a risk taker, an inquirer, a communicator, and so it was that a Mahtomedi third-grader learning about city governance decided to get the mayor on the phone.

The mayor, Jud Marshall, said he could tell by the boy's voice that "it was probably the first time he'd done anything like that," but he welcomed the call and accepted the student's invitation to speak with his class at St. Jude of the Lake Catholic School.

The resulting visit -- informal in nature -- included some good back-and-forth discussion. "It was something that was fun for me -- and it seemed fun for the kids," he said.

For 60 years St. Jude has been in operation, and while it has long prided itself on turning out leaders, the school finds itself focused on a new kind of learner -- one it hopes will retain his or her youthful curiosity while leaving with technology skills required to keep digging for answers.

The K-8 school, which has seen enrollment fall from 300-plus kids about seven years ago to 112 students this year, is determined to compete. It is in the process of becoming an authorized IB school for its K-5 program. And it has invested $100,000 in iPads, laptops and Smart Boards -- all the tools of a modern classroom.

The technology investment, which also includes teacher training, was made possible by $50,000 in donations and a $50,000 matching grant.

Principal Jennifer Cassidy said the school has worked closely, too, with Lake Area Discovery Center, a Christian-based preschool, to develop a feeder system of sorts. Early signs are favorable. Kindergarten enrollment increased from 11 students in 2011-12 to 16 this year, Cassidy said.

On a recent Wednesday, 10 students worked on laptops in a third-grade classroom. There was enough space for twice that many kids.

Marshall said he was encouraged that the congregation has remained committed to the school -- and to growing its population.

"I think it's a great asset," the mayor said.

Pursuing IB status

Cassidy came to St. Jude in July 2010 after serving as principal and president of St. Bernard's Catholic School in St. Paul's North End area. St. Bernard's, she said, also had pursued authorization as an IB school, but closed before the process was complete.

St. Jude spokeswoman Patty Gibbs said St. Jude sees IB programming as a solid fit with its Catholic mission because it emphasizes the development of "inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people who help to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect."

From a competitive standpoint, IB status also gives the school a "critical differentiator" among private schools vying to boost enrollment, she said.

Although IB authorization isn't expected until spring or early summer, St. Jude has trained teachers and revised its curriculum and already is putting IB principles into practice.

Cassidy, asked to explain the IB program, said she always tells people: "It's not about what you teach, it's how you teach."

At the start of each unit, teachers ask students: "What do you know about this? What do you want to know?" There still are lessons, of course, but students also are encouraged to find answers on their own and to act on what they know and ask questions.

And that, Cassidy said, can lead an 8-year-old third-grader to ask a local mayor to come speak about governing.

Third-grade PowerPoints

Recently, Lynette Loch, the school's third-grade teacher and technology integrationist, had her students divide into three groups to develop Power- Point presentations about inventions inspired by nature. She gave the kids a lesson on creating hyperlinks "and let them go," she said.

A visitor, thinking he was in a science class, was told that with IB, there are no distinctions. Yes, Loch said, science figured into the inventions themselves, but language arts also was evident in the writing and social studies in the history behind the inventions.

She sees kids who are more engaged in learning -- not simply waiting for information to be given to them, she said.

"Our challenge is to get them to continue on this path," Loch said.

At one desk, Caroline Monty, 8, worked on a PowerPoint presentation about suction cups. She said she planned to use a picture of an octopus as her hyperlink. But for now, she had a cow on her computer screen.

She was new to the school and happy to be there.

A few days earlier, Caroline had used her PowerPoint skills to make the case to her parents that she should get a dog. She was not yet successful, but still had hopes. A Yorkie would be nice, she said.

Cassidy, impressed by the girl's initiative, said: "She's being a risk taker."

Anthony Lonetree • 651-925-5036

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