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Laity in Catholic schools

When David Estes, principal of The School of Sacred Heart St. Francis de Sales in Bennington, walked into his first meeting of Vermont Catholic school principals in 1987, he looked around the room and saw one religious brother; the rest of the principals were women religious.
 
Now he is no longer the minority; Vermont has no Catholic school principals who are members of religious orders.
 
And according to Lisa Lorenz, superintendent of Catholic schools for the Diocese of Burlington, this years marks the first year there are no religious sisters on staff of any of the 14 Catholic schools in Vermont, though pastors and other clergy are “wonderful” about visiting the schools.
 
Father Scott Gratton is the new part-time vice principal for Catholic mission at Rice Memorial High School in South Burlington.
 
Staffing is just one change Estes – a husband and father of two -- has lived through in his nearly 40 years in Catholic education – all at the Bennington school where he used to teach third and fifth grades.
 
“I have a lot of history” here, he said as he sat in a school office that was once a choir loft overlooking what was Sacred Heart Church.
 
The 1995 closing of the church located within the brick school building is but one of the changes Estes has witnessed. When Sacred Heart Church was merged with St. Francis de Sales Church, the Bennington parish became Sacred Heart St. Francis de Sales, and eventually the name of Sacred Heart School was changed to that of the parish.
 
Other changes he has experienced during his tenure at the school are numerous: the reinstatement of grades seven and eight and the addition of a preschool; the expansion of the school into the church space for use as a multi-purpose room; an increase in interest in Catholic education among non-Catholics seeking quality education and a safe, disciplined environment; and the retirement of the last Sister of St. Joseph to teach in the school.
 
“For decades, schools were staffed entirely by religious but as numbers of religious decreased, schools were staffed by very capable, committed lay colleagues who ministered with religious and understood/understand what Catholic education is about,” commented Sister of Mercy Marianne Read, a former Catholic school teacher, principal and superintendent in Vermont.
 
“All lay teachers today in Catholic education understand that by the words spoken and by their presence to children and young adults, they can bring faith and hope and joy,” she continued. “Our lay teachers, continue the legacy of religious [congregations] and continue to build on a strong foundation, for they teach us that it is not just the crucifix on the wall or the statue of Mary or Joseph in the school building that makes a school Catholic. It is not just the priests, religious sisters and brothers or lay teachers we have that make a school Catholic. It is this and far more. It is the living out of the charism of the religious orders who taught in the schools. It is the teaching of Gospel values and striving to model the message of Christ on a daily basis, not just in religion class but witnessed to throughout the school day; it is our conscious participation in the life and mission of the Church that makes us Catholic.”
 
When the last Sister of St. Joseph at Sacred Heart School retired, Estes said there was concern about maintaining the Catholicity of the school, but the lay teachers and staff members live, teach and pray in ways that make it clear this is a Catholic school. “There is a joy here surrounded by the Catholic faith,” Estes said.
 
School Masses and prayer are key, he added. “When you see the students singing the Lord’s Prayer, they’re not singing. They’re praying. They mean it. It’s the presence of God here among everyone.”
 
Last year six students were baptized, an example of the evangelization role played by the school, once filled with only Catholic children. “We are evangelizing all the time,” Estes said.
 
Other changes he has witnessed through the years include the addition of technology and technology education to keep up with the changing times; the addition of athletic teams that build school spirit; more single-parent families and safe environment training for teachers, staff and volunteers.
 
“The gift of religious and clergy is truly a gift, and the gift of the laity is a gift,” Lorenz said. And having all-lay staffs in Catholic schools “is different, but this is a new time in our world” when there are fewer religious and clergy available to staff schools.
 
When Estes first came to the Catholic school, tuition was $50 a month; now it is $475. Though financial assistance is available, Estes said new ways of financing Catholic education need to be found.
 
As he looks to the future, Estes can’t help but look back on the changes he has experienced. “We’ve had a lot of change here at the school,” he said. “Change takes a lot of work, a lot of forethought and a willingness to change. …Change is a risk, but you have to go forward.”
 
--Originally published in the Fall 2017 issue of Vermont Catholic magazine.
  • Published in Diocesan

'Bake for Good'

Twelve-year-old Evan Eggsware, a sixth grader at The School of Sacred Heart St. Francis de Sales in Bennington, learned to toss pizza dough at school April 26.
 
But it was a lesson in more than pizza making or even baking.
 
King Arthur Flour presented its “Bake for Good: Kids Learn, Bake, Share” program for students in fifth through eighth grades, and Evan was one of the demonstrators.
 
He and Grace Kobelia, 11, also a sixth grader, assisted Paula Gray, manager of the Bake for Good program, onstage, putting into action what she talked about: making dough from scratch.
 
A former math and science teacher, she explained the math and science that go into baking bread as well as hygienic procedures like hand washing and pulling hair back.
 
Like a television cooking show, video close-ups of the dough-making procedures were shown on a large screen on the stage next to the table where the students and Gray worked.
 
One catchy lesson included in the program was the proper way to measure flour: fluff (in a bowl), sprinkle (into the measuring cup) and sweep (off excess with a dough scraper to even the flour in the cup).
 
Kneading requires “fold, push and turn” to get the dough soft, smooth, not sticky and stretchy, Gray instructed.
 
Once the students saw how it’s all done, they received a bread baking kit from King Arthur – based in Norwich – so they could bake at home. The kits included wheat and all-purpose flour, yeast, a dough scraper, a recipe booklet and a plastic bag and gift tag. (Gluten-free flour was given to students who are gluten-intolerant.)
 
Their instructions were clear: Bake one bread for themselves and one for the Sacred Heart St. Francis de Sales food shelf in Bennington. (They could choose to make rolls if they preferred.)
 
“They are ‘baking for good,’ baking for other people,” and that fits in with lessons learned at the school of caring for others as Jesus would have them do, commented Principal David Estes.
 
At the school, “we learn to be respectful and serve our community and follow the example of Jesus Christ,” Grace said.
 
Gray said representatives of King Arthur like to present the free program in Catholic schools, which are “all about the mission of sharing, caring and giving to others,” just like the Bake for Good program.
 
After assisting her in the school program, both Evan and Grace said they are more inclined to bake more, though both have some baking experience at home.
 
King Arthur Flour presents the Bake for Good program at about 200 schools each year; about 800 apply.
 
For more information, go to kingarthurflour.com/learnbakeshare.
 
  • Published in Schools

Ukulele lessons

Uke-otta hear this: Children at The School of Sacred Heart St. Francis de Sales in Bennington learning to play ukuleles.
 
Free ukes.
 
Thanks to a win in a contest sponsored by Kala, a popular brand of ukuleles, the school got 45 of the instruments at no cost at the beginning of the current school year.
 
The ukulele, sometimes abbreviated to uke, is a member of the lute family of string instruments.
 
“I enjoy the ukulele; it makes a beautiful sound,” fourth grader Isabella Thurber, 9, said after a March music class during which the students worked on their ukulele skills.
 
March is Music in Schools Month.
 
“Whenever you can put an instrument in the hands of a child, it’s exciting,” enthused Principal David Estes.
 
Ken Pallman, father of fourth grader Kaelene, is a drummer who took up the uke about three years ago; he likes it so much he has 17 in his collection – including two Kalas. “It’s more fun than the recorder,” a common musical instrument for entry-level school band members, he said. “It sounds like a happy instrument. You can’t be sad and play a uke. It’s a blast.”
 
He entered a Facebook contest and encouraged others to participate, and the result was a prize of 45 ukes for the Catholic school.
 
Students in grades four and five are learning to play the ukulele during their weekly 45-minute music classes, and this is the first time the school has provided instruments. (Third graders learn to play the recorder, and like students who play in a school band, their families must provide their instruments.)
 
“We’ve never done the ukulele; we’ve done the recorder. Ukuleles are more fun,” said Ryan Maroney, 10, a fourth grader.
 
Classmate Vincent Mattison, 10, called out his enthusiasm for “Hey, Ho! Shalom” when his music teacher, Stephanie Paul, asked students to play it. “It’s slow, and you don’t have to change chords,” he said.
 
He likes the instrument because, he said, “once you learn it, you can play the guitar.”
 
The ukulele has four strings; the guitar six or 12.
 
Kaelene Pallman, 10, already is learning to play the guitar, which she said helps her with the uke. “This is easier because I know how to do the fingering” of the chords, she said.
 
Ken Pallman, inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame as a drummer in 2014, said there has been a “huge upswing” in interest in ukuleles over the past half dozen years. “I think it’s because it is an instrument anybody can pick up and at least noodle on and get somewhat proficient,” he said, adding that ukulele groups are forming throughout the country.
 
There is even one in Bennington that people of all ages attend.
 
The instrument is popular, Paul said, because it is easily grasped. “You can start to feel you’ve mastered the ukulele pretty easily, and it’s a lifetime instrument you can play.”
 
Taking ukulele lessons at school gives Sacred Heart St. Francis de Sales students “an opportunity if they are not so inclined to do something musical,” Pallman said. “Music is a wonderful thing.”
 
He said students who learn to read music increase their math proficiency because musical notes are based on math.
 
“You have to know your numbers” to learn music, said fourth grader Zoey Zazzaro, 10. “You have to get your timing right.”
 
When Paul was a child she had difficulty with long division, and in the fifth grade began playing the saxophone. Within a year and a half she was in advanced math class. “It’s getting that part of the brain turned on” that affects both music and math skills, she said.
 
She called it a “blessing” to give the children the hands-on experience of the ukulele. “They can see their progress and hopefully use this experience to be confident as they try out other instruments in their lives.”
 
Some of the ukulele players will accompany the school chorus during a performance of “Over the Rainbow” in the spring concert.
 
  • Published in Schools
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