Grant looks to bring cultural fluency to Catholic schools

With a diverse student body, consisting of 11 different cultures, and seven different languages, St. Pascal Baylon is not the homogenous Catholic school it once was.
The students speak Spanish, Amharic, French and Creole French, Hmong and Lau, Vietnamese, and the Nigerian language Igbo. Students are white, African American, African, Native American, Hispanic, Asian and Indian. Thirty percent of the students are not even Roman Catholics.
So, with a new grant of $215,000, St. Pascal, along with Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary School in Maplewood, will look to get up to speed with what it means to have a multi-cultured student body. 
Both schools are private kindergarten-through-eighth-grade schools, and cost about $3,700 per year for a student to attend. Roughly students 200 attend each school.
Many of the youngsters receive financial aid to attend the schools -- as much as 80 percent of the students at St. Pascal Baylon get aid.
The anonymous grant, shared between the two schools, will be used over the next three school years to improve the achievement gap at the schools, and will provide cultural proficiency training for school staff.
A common language
According to a statement from the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, "This training will provide a framework and a common language that will allow these schools to offer an equitable education for each child. ... As teachers and staff learn more about the cultural diversity in their classrooms and community, a stronger partnership with families will be established and increased student achievement is expected."
The grant also provides extended bussing in St. Paul, making the two schools more easily accessible to East Siders. 
Dan Bell, St. Pascal Baylon principal, said the grant stems from a desire for school staff "to get to know our students and families."
The cultural proficiency training comes via CampbellJones & Associates, a company that "provides professional learning seminars for school systems and organizations," according to its website. St. Pascal and Presentation are the first Catholic schools to receive training from the organization, Bell said.
CampbellJones & Associates will provide ongoing workshops with school staff, and also sit in on classes to provide input throughout the three-year period.
Teachers' backgrounds different than students'
The training started with two days in August, where staff discussed with CampbellJones staff ways to engage their classrooms.
The trainings, Bell said, allow teachers "to take a step back" and assess how their lessons relate to the students.
Mike Rogers, Presentation principal, noted that many of the teachers at the two schools come from similar backgrounds. But the students, not so much.
"We're seeing students come into our schools that have not had those experiences."
Bell said the parochial schools can't just operate the same way they've always done it -- the changing demographics of the school necessitate new ways of teaching.
By adapting, the small schools are hoping that they'll be able to grow enrollment.
"Our approach to instruction is going to change," Bell said, so that St. Pascal becomes "a school that can meet the needs of the neighborhood around us."
"The neighborhood is changing," Bell added. "We want to make sure we're doing a good job of making them feel welcome."
Schools' achievement
Rogers said that academic progress isn't necessarily a major issue at Presentation. "Students, when they leave our school ... are already operating at a high-school level," he said. 
Looking at the significant achievement gap within St. Paul Public Schools, Presentation and St. Pascal appear to be dodging that problem, possibly due to the smaller class sizes, he said.
"We don't have that conflict at our schools," Rogers said. "We're getting ahead of it."
Contact Patrick Larkin at 651-748-7816 or at Follow him on Twitter at @ESRPatrickLark.
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