SAN DIEGO (CNS) — Megan Gonzalez connected brightly colored K’Nex plastic pieces into a triangle, part of a lesson exploring angles.
She was one of several dozen middle school teachers participating in a hands-on workshop on how to make math and science concepts engaging to middle school students.
“The new buzzword is STEM, having kids up and moving around,” said Gonzalez, referring to a curriculum focused on science, technology, engineering and math.
The workshop was one of 275 presented by the National Catholic Educational Association at its annual convention and expo, held March 29-31 in San Diego. The association represents 6,525 Catholic schools with a total enrollment of 1.9 million students from preschool to secondary levels.
Nearly 5,000 Catholic school teachers and administrators from California to the Caribbean attended the conference at the San Diego Convention Center.
The conference was organized in partnership with the Office of Schools of the San Diego Diocese, which provided hundreds of volunteers, clad in yellow T-shirts and straw beachcomber hats. The diocese provided artwork, including brightly colored surfboards, which lined the halls of the convention center, created by local Catholic students capturing a slice of San Diego life.
Conference-goers attended hands-on workshops, professional development sessions and three eucharistic liturgies all the while celebrating their opportunity to combine their faith in God with their love of teaching.
A sense of concern pervaded many conversations, however, as NCEA leaders confirmed at the beginning of the conference that Catholic school enrollment had continued to drop in the last academic year. Schools served 23,738 fewer students, a 1.2 percent drop from the previous year, and closings and consolidations led to a total loss of 43 schools.
The leaders confirmed that the cost of tuition continued to be the biggest barrier to a Catholic school education. They noted, however, that 27 states offered some form of financial assistance to parents who wanted to opt for a private school education, and that some dioceses across the country had robust scholarship programs.
New areas of focus
For this year’s conference, NCEA offered new “tracks” this year focused on exceptional learners, Hispanic ministry and STREAM, which adds arts and religious instruction to STEM-focused curriculum, an association initiative. That’s in addition to the workshops focused on how to integrate technology in the classroom.
This year, the association tried to move away from lecture-style sessions to interactive workshops where those on hand could learn in smaller groups, said Amy Durkin, the organization’s director of events.
At the workshop Gonzalez attended, she and the other teachers built models from plastic parts and some raced cars built from Legos with tires of varying sizes to see which one moved fastest, all to illustrate math concepts such as circumference and angles.
Other sessions in the STREAM track included “Using STEM to Program Drones and Help Kids Love Math,” “Incorporating Technology in Your Everyday Lessons” and “STEAM to STREAM on a Shoestring!”
Cost was very much on the mind Gonzalez, who teaches middle school math at Blessed Sacrament School in the New York borough of Manhattan.
“Where did you get your resources?” she asked the instructors. “As a Catholic school teacher, that’s always my number one question.”
Around 78 percent of Catholic schools serve students with mild to moderate special needs, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. These are mostly focused on learning disabilities, such as dyslexia, and some physical ones.
Sister Dale McDonald, NCEA’s director of public policy and educational research, noted a fundamental reality Catholic schools face: They do not have the financial resources public schools do to offer a full range of support for students with special needs.
She said that dioceses are making an effort to serve these students, with some hiring resource teachers that can work in various schools to serve these students.
“Hopefully, we can do more,” said Sister McDonald, a Sister of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. “We’re always looking at how we can do these programs in our schools.”
The “Exceptional Learners” track included sessions on “Design and Implementation of Special Needs Programs,” “Special Services in a 21st-Century Catholic High School” and “Including Students with Disabilities in Catholic Schools: Why? How? Yes!”
A session called “A Change of Pace: Differentiating for the High Ability Learner” focused on serving gifted students, also part of the “exceptional learners” population.
A number of workshops specifically focused on serving the nation’s growing Latino student population. Latinos represent an opportunity not just for Catholic schools to grow but for the Catholic Church itself, Sister McDonald said, noting that 16 percent of students in these schools are Latino.
The conference offered several sessions focused on this challenge, including “Getting Latinos on Our Seats and Our Boards” and “Si Se Puede! Latino Students Can Succeed in Schools.”
Julieta Crosby, the director of Latino and Hispanic enrollment at the Seattle Archdiocese, led a workshop that gave practical advice on how schools can increase the number of Latino families they serve.
“It all begins with a good attitude,” said Crosby, who said schools needed to do much more than enroll Latino families. They needed to create an environment that makes them feel they are valued members of the school, she added.
She recommended that schools establish a Parent Ambassador Program, in which Spanish-speaking parents are trained to serve as liaisons between Latino families and the school and the greater community.
The session featured a Q-and-A session with Carolina Lopez and Norma Vazquez, the Parent Ambassadors at St. Mary Magdalen Elementary School in Everett, Washington. The women answered questions such as, “Is it OK for the principal who is learning Spanish to talk to the parents in that language, or is that considered offensive?”
“It’s fine for you to try,” answered Vazquez. “They will know what’s in your heart.”
Catholic schools must reach out to not only Latinos but other immigrant communities that are settling into the United States, NCEA officials stressed throughout the conference.
And they must do a better job to explain to the public why they matter now more than ever, they said.
“The message is that Catholic schools are an integral part of society,” said Thomas Burnford, the interim president of the NCEA. “They form future generations of citizens who will be productive, who will live their lives with the core values of respect, love, friendship and service. Catholics schools benefit the entire country.”