Making the Grade

Aug. 21, 2003
Making the Grade
By Blessed Sacrament staff/ SUN contributing writers
One-on-one program helps Cathedral students raise scores

Statistics show that the quality of an elementary school curriculum lays the foundation for students continuing to high school and college. With its strict reading approach and its heavy emphasis on writing skills, Cathedral School in Syracuse is paving the road for its students’ academic success.

The school announced on Aug. 12 that this year, six of the nine fourth-graders who took the state language arts exam passed it. The figures are tiny, but the achievement is significant; last year only three of 12 students passed. “The rise in scores is a credit to Cathedral’s committment to our students’ success,” said Cathedral’s principal, Sister Donna Smith, DC.

Contributing to the achievement at Cathedral is its adoption of the literacy program developed by Brenda Weaver of Skaneateles. Cathedral is the only school in the diocese with the unique program and it is reaping the rewards. “The reading program has done great things for the students,” said Sister Donna. “It has exceeded our expectations.” The program –– in place only four months before the 2002 English language arts exam was given last January –– has children reading books that are carefully chosen for their personal reading level. The students are tested every eight to 10 weeks, and their reading level and books are adjusted accordingly. What is unique about the program according to third grade teacher Diane Branish is that it is not only designed for children who need extra help with their reading and writing skills; it encompasses the entire student body.

“We aren’t just pulling out children who need extra help. We make sure all children in the school, kindergarten through sixth grade, are working on being better readers and writers,” said Branish. “We want every child to succeed.” Children are divided into small groups according to their level, which is determined by benchmark tests. Then the children, working with a reading specialist, are taught the skills and strategies they need to develop as readers and writers. The children must acquire these skills and strategies before going on to the next level, where they encounter more challenging books, said Sister Donnna. For example, at the beginning levels, children are taught skills such as determining the relevance of punctuation marks and ascertaining how pictures aid story development, while at the advanced levels, they learn to write responses to text.

Branish has noticed that students enthusiastically anticipate going down to the “reading room” — with walls decorated with letters and covered with books –– to develop their skills. “The kids love to read. They are challenging themselves,” said Branish. “They aren’t afraid to pick books that may be difficult because they have confidence in their reading skills.” An outstanding character development program parallels the academic achievement at Cathedral. “Once you build reading and writing skills you start to work on other things,” stated Sister Donna. Since 2001, the school has operated with a “word for the week.” The students take the designated word, which ties into an aspect of character development, and apply it to their actions. For example, the word might be “respect,” pointed out Branish. She incorporates the word in the classroom, reading the children books relating to respect and getting them thinking about how they can show it. Branish said the program has boosted childrens’ confidence.

“Their attitudes are changing,” she said. “They feel good about themselves.” Sister Donna agrees that educators must strive to help the whole child develop. “This is where the students are going to get basic elementary and character skills,” said Sister Donna. “So it is very important that we do everything we can to help them.” Cathedral is located downtown and serves a low-income population. A portion of students at the school receive tuition assistance, Sister Donna said, but she also pointed out that parents make great sacrifices and work hard to pay the tuition –– some even working two jobs. Catholic education is a priority, remarked Sister Donna. “Learning has nothing to do with poverty levels,” she added. “Every child needs the opportunity for a good education.”

Programs in place at Cathedral ensure that a solid education carries on for students following their graduation from the elementary school. A portion of funds from The Guardian Angel Society, set up three years ago by Father Joseph Champlin, rector at Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Syracuse, provides scholarships for Cathedral graduates to continue their Catholic education at Bishop Ludden, Bishop Grimes or Christian Brothers Academy. Currently, 31 students attending the high schools receive aid from the Guardian Angel Society, noted Father Champlin. “Our two seniors at the high schools have no marks below a 90,” he added. “They are both being recruited by Ivy League schools.” The remarkable achievements of these two students can be traced to their roots at Cathedral. When children are taught fundamental reading and writing skills at an early age and the seed of a great education is planted, great things happen.

“We want children to feel good about themselves,” said Sister Donna. “If you can build up their person, you can help them succeed in life.”

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