By Susan Motander
The parochial school at Immaculate Conception Church is celebrating National Catholic Schools Week. This is an especially celebratory week for the school as it is beginning its 95th year of existence, so it seemed an appropriate time to visit the small school in Monrovia.
The school has gone through many changes over the years including a brief period of coordination with the school at Annunciation Church. Now, back to a stand-alone school at the local Church, the school is going still going strong which may seem a strange comment about a school with only 84 students; but a few minutes of conversation with some of the students and meeting the faculty validates that observation.
“Students in public schools are there because they have to be,” observed Mike Winterrowd, the president of the I.C. School Board. “Our students are here because they want to be.”
A conversation with a few of the older students from Immaculate Conception School quickly reveals this to be true. It was clear they appreciate its many aspects. These students, from the seventh and eighth grader (all of them 13 and 14 year-olds) spoke enthusiastically about the programs at the small school.
The students did not think the size of the school was a negative. Isabella Munoz and Isabella Avitia both spoke enthusiastically about the student teacher ratio. With seven teachers, the ratio of better than 12 to 1 and most schools cannot come anywhere close to it. The students pointed out that they felt the teachers were able to give them personalized attention.
“We also know everyone at the school, not just the ones in our class,” said Munoz. She said that she knew the names of all the other students.
Sebastian Gutierrez said that he found it easier to pay attention in class at Immaculate Conception. “I used to attend public school, “he said, “but it was hard to pay attention there; here it is easy.”
The students all pointed with pride to their Academic Decathlon team as an example of the challenges and opportunities available. Such a team is a quite a feat as it includes 10 members, almost an eighth of student body. Competing against other Catholic schools each year, the team is composed largely of the students in 7th and 8th grade, with the notable exception of their math “whiz” who joined the team last year as a 5th grader and is still competing.
Cassie Beltre noted that the students in the upper grades all had Chrome Books and they younger students worked with tablets and were learning basic coding. The computer savvy shown by the students was impressive. Beltre said “If I don’t quite understand an assignment, I can e-chat with my teacher and get an explanation. I can email in an assignment like an essay and my teacher can grade it and sent it right back to me.”
The Chrome Books, tablets and other equipment necessary were a gift to the students from a supporter of the school. The Internet Technology manager for the school is Paul Bay, a retired IT manager who volunteers at the school not only in that capacity, but also as a member of their Board of Education. He commented, “coding is the language of the future.”
According to the principal, Carmela Lovano, the school receives a great deal of support from the parents and some from the community as well. She pointed to the state of the art microscopes that were donated to the school.
Lovano said that while the parents are required to donate 40 hours of volunteer time each year, most donate a great deal more. They also provide the students with the occasional treat or snacks and other items to support the school’s various programs.
The structure of the faculty is a bit different as well. No one teacher seems to teach a single subject or grade. For example Tamara Avitia said she taught 1st and 2nd grade, but that she also taught science to other grades as well and “Coding to the students as young as first grade. The school’s newest teacher, Geroge Lozana, teaches 6th, 7th and 8th graders in Math and Science, but also Spanish to “the whole school.” Judy Hernandez teaches the lower grades, but also teaches religion including helping the third graders prepare for the first communion, and serves as the liaison to the church.
Several other teachers have multiple roles as well, Heinrich Sanchez teaches the core subjects (social studies, history, English) to the upper grades as well as serving as the coach to the decathlon team. The kindergarten teacher, Roxanne Cardona also teaches Physical Education and coaches the Volleyball and Basketball teams, and runs the afterschool programs. The preschool (transitional kindergarten) teacher, Deborah Papadopulos, is also the school art teacher. All this leads to a sort of cooperative educational program, and one that seems popular with the faculty as well as the students.
All this became clear as Lozano explained the schedule the school was following to celebrate this week. Sunday was their open house (including the school’s science fair which the students interviewed were proud to show off). Monday the students honored their parents, while Tuesday, the reached out to their neighbors visiting several of the local businesses. Wednesday focused on the church including the students attending mass and going to communion. Today, Thursday, is Student Appreciation Day with a special lunch and an early dismissal. The week will culminate with Teacher and Staff Appreciation. Ranches noted “we will get an early dismissal as well.”
All this makes it clear that the little school is not just trying; it is succeeding in providing its students with a solid education.