Grant will help Catholic urban schools study language-acquisition skills of their culturally diverse students

Grant will help Catholic urban schools study language-acquisition skills of their culturally diverse students

An organization dedicated to supporting a coalition of 15 Catholic urban schools in the Twin Cities area has received a $339,040 grant to study the literacy and language-acquisition needs and skills of the schools’ culturally diverse students.

FOCUS (Friends of Catholic Urban Schools) said the grant from an anonymous foundation will help the mostly inner-city schools provide the best possible education for a diverse population that includes a growing number of Asian, Hispanic, African and African American students.

FOCUS, which began operations in June, is affiliated with the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis but is an independent, nonprofit organization. Its executive director, Thomas McCarver, is former dean of education at the University of St. Thomas and former superintendent of schools for the archdiocese.

The FOCUS program grew out of a three-year discussion on the strengths and challenges of the 15 schools, McCarver explained.

Archbishop John Ireland encouraged the development of parish-based Catholic elementary schools as far back as the 1800s to serve the Catholic, immigrant population flowing into Minnesota.

Those schools are experiencing significant changes, some dating to the 1960s. Back then, 95 percent of the teachers were nuns; today, nuns represent only about 1 percent of the faculty. The other major shift is the racial, ethnic, economic and even religious mix found in Catholic schools throughout the Twin Cities.

“While many of the students attending our FOCUS schools are not Catholic,” McCarver noted, “they come from families that value the faith-centered education and safe, nurturing environment provided by the Catholic schools.”

One thing the 15 FOCUS schools share in common is that they generally serve lower-income neighborhoods. Many of the students qualify for either free or reduced-cost lunches. To qualify for free lunches, for example, a student must come from a family that earns less than $27,500 per year.

The 15 schools are Ascension, Pope John Paul II, St. Elizabeth Seton, San Miguel and Risen Christ in Minneapolis; Trinity, St. Mathew, St. Agnes, St. Francis-St. James, St. Bernard and St. Peter Claver in St. Paul; St. Michael in West St. Paul; St. Raphael in Crystal; Sacred Heart in Robbinsdale; and Blessed Trinity in Richfield.

One way the FOCUS program is helping the 15 schools is by raising funds from foundations and other sources to help with the students’ tuition. Another way is to underwrite efforts that help the schools maintain their tradition of academic excellence and to prepare students for success in high school, college and careers.

“These 15 schools are absorbing the shock of this turbulent change in every aspect of their curricula,” McCarver said. “This study will closely examine the challenges that the students, teachers and families are encountering in all areas related to language acquisition.”

The study will be led by a team of three faculty members from the University of St. Thomas School of Education. The lead researcher, Dr. Amy Fournelle Smith, teaches in the school’s Department of Curriculum and Instruction. The others are Marcia Reardon, an adjunct faculty member who supervises student-teachers, and Dr. Margaret Reif, a member of the Department of Teacher Education and director of the Murray Institute, a program that provides free graduate-level education at St. Thomas to teachers in Catholic schools.

For the study the researchers will concentrate on five of the 15 FOCUS schools:

  • St. Peter Claver, in St. Paul’s Summit-University neighborhood, serves African American students; Eritrean, French Cameroon and Liberian students from Africa; and Hispanic, American Indian and Caucasian students.
  • Trinity Catholic, on St. Paul’s East Side, serves Hmong, Vietnamese, African American, Hispanic, Egyptian and Caucasian students.
  • St. Matthew's, on St. Paul’s West Side, serves Mexican American, Ecuadorian, Puerto Rican, El Salvadorian, African American, Asian and Caucasian students.
  • Risen Christ, in South Minneapolis, serves Mexican American, African American, American Indian, Mexican, Ecuadorian, Argentinian, Columbian, Dominican Republic, El Salvadorian, Cuban, Puerto Rican, Nigerian, Congolese, Liberian, Eritrean, Ethiopian, Vietnamese, Laotian and Caucasian students.
  • Blessed Trinity, in Richfield, serves Hispanic and Caucasian students.

“There is tremendous diversity in these five schools,” Smith said. “Our study will examine the range of language skills that students as well as teachers bring to the classroom, and we especially will focus on how reading, writing and other English-language skills are best acquired in such settings.”

The researchers will work closely with the principals of the five schools. The study is scheduled to run from January 2007 to June 2008. The study’s findings will lead to recommendations and an action plan that will be presented to all 15 FOCUS schools and implemented in the 2008-2009 school year.