By Krissy Weinhardt
The Catholic Schools system here in Hampton Roads is quite unified in their mission, to “empower leaders one faith-filled day at a time”. Since 1963 schools like St. Matthews’ in Virginia Beach have provided a rigorous academic curriculum for its students in addition to discipline, tradition and strong Christian values to prepare children for their academic future and as citizens in our community. Their philosophy is based on the belief that the purpose of their schools is to provide a Christ-centered environment, in unison with both family and community. They believe this encourages a life-long pursuit of learning through spiritual, academic, and physical education.
No one better embodies these philosophies as does Development Director Liz Allen. Hampton Roads Weekly had the chance to sit down with her and learn more about the Catholic School System here in Hampton Roads and learn about one of their most important events of the year, Catholic Schools Week which took place at the end of January.
Here is our interview that took place pre COVID-19. While we wish we could have highlighted all of their fun events throughout the school year and summer, we are here to help spread the word about their re-opening plan for the fall and the safety measures that they will employ.
How are you getting the message out about the Catholic School system to ensure you reach parents in the area and beyond?
The Hampton Roads Catholic Schools Marketing Consortium decided to go ahead with more of a digital presence to tell people about our message, since this is a very military-centric town. Many military families are going to be looking for new schools as they are transferred and it is much easier, if they are across the world, to go online and look for their options here in Hampton Roads. They also tend to see the benefit of putting their kids in Catholic schools since the education is consistent across the world and being with us definitely gives them that sense of consistency.
We also have both radio and television advertising. It is because of the great work of John Langlois, owner of Tele-Video Productions, that we are able to do what we do since he has been able to get us such beneficial deals on radio and television advertising. We are launching our campaign at the perfect time in advertising since we are past the holidays and there isn’t much crowding in the airwaves over different places competing. It was great that Hampton Roads Catholic Schools were actually a tagline on the Hallmark Channel which was really exciting for us! The collective effort we have now throughout different mediums of advertising has been incredibly successful.
So, you had Catholic Schools Week at the end of January, can you tell us more about that event?
We start with an Open House at the beginning of the week where prospective students and their families are able to come and tour the school and see everything to gain a better perspective of what we are all about. The rest of the week’s activities are really fun as well! The NCEA (National Catholic Education Association) shares different aspects of interest each day. We have done a career day and a grandparents’ brunch. This day is a big tradition here that has been going on a long time. Our staff puts on a fabulous lunch and the grandparents are able to come in and have lunch with their grandchild. Not only are they able to visit the children’s school, but meet the teachers and administrators and really get to see firsthand what they must hear often about from the child. During this day we also have our academic fair taking place where the grandparents can see the projects that the kids have been working so hard on. These projects range from making angels to communion banners, but it also includes projects on Auschwitz and the Holocaust. They even focus on DNA, animal habitats and ecosystems. All these projects are grade-level specific and the grandparents are able to see them all and it is a really wonderful day for everyone involved. We are very proud of our school and we take a lot of pride in showing it off to all the grandparents who come!
During Catholic Schools Week we also have a pajama day and a faculty and staff versus students volleyball game. We also had a sports day where you could dress up as either your favorite sports player or if that wasn’t something the kids wanted to participate in, they could also dress up as their favorite movie or book character. Everyone gets really into it and has fun! All of the Catholic schools participate and invite everyone to come out for their Open Houses or arrange for a private tour to discover what Hampton Roads Catholic Schools are all about.
What opportunities do you offer new students and those who transfer to the area?
Well, we have our mentorship program where students are assigned a “buddy” to help them learn the school and introduce them to other students so they feel acquainted. Having a peer that they can turn to has been vital to those new students.
With only 500 students in our school ranging from 2 years old until 8th grade we have been able to create a strong sense of community and also keep our class sizes to the max of 22 students per classroom. This has allowed teachers to really work with their students and have a closer relationship with each child to help them learn and grow effectively. This is a lot different compared to most public schools in the area which encompass roughly 25-30 students per classroom. We also have a program for those students of military families as well, where they can bond and they have their own special lunch and they are able to openly talk about what is going on in their lives, which is much different than the average student.
We are blessed that our parishioners support our school 100% and it has been a wonderful relationship because we do not receive any federal funding. Everything we raise, we do ourselves. Tuition alone does not cover the cost of educating a child and we are always looking for ways to supplement. We have six major fundraisers that take place throughout the year and many of them participate and even volunteer their time to help our schools. It is a wonderful relationship. Our school is even part of the EISTC- Education Improvement Scholarship Tax Incentive Program. This means that if you are a Virginia resident and pay taxes, you can make a donation to the scholarship program and you get a 65% Virginia tax credit. We were able to raise over $200,000 just from that alone and we were able to use that money so that families could send their children to Catholic School!
As Hampton Roads Weekly came to find out, there are many benefits to a Catholic School education. St. Matthew’s school in Virginia Beach has a 99% graduation rate. It is very inclusive of all students and in fact, in their population of students approximately 30% are not Catholic.
The only requirement for all students is they have to participate in religion classes during the day but don’t have to practice the religion outside of the classroom. St. Matthews’ population is 27% racially and ethnically diverse and they welcome international students.
One of the many accomplishments the school is most proud of is their current application for Purple Star school status. This honor can be achieved from either a public or private school and is awarded from the Department of Defense. If the school is military friendly and meets the criteria of understanding the military child, their families and their unique circumstances and are effective in addressing these, then they can be eligible for Purple Star status. They have four schools that received it in Hampton Roads and they are working on getting theirs.
Because we had this interview with Liz Allen before the pandemic hit our area, we have added to this interview after a great conversation with Principal Lou Goldberg. He gave us a brief insight into the school’s reopening plan.
School started back on August 24th, five days a week. Students returned to a safe environment with hired cleaning crews who are disinfecting every night A janitorial staff is working diligently to keep all surfaces clean.
Students will be welcomed back with smaller class sizes and desks sitting at 3 to 6 feet apart from each other. St. Matthew’s has also ordered cubicle protectors for their desks in grades K-3 so that each student has extra protection. We have also revamped the way older students, especially middle school age kids, transition between classes. Instead of them walking around the school to change classes, they will stay in their designated homeroom classes and the teachers will move to them. This ensures social distancing in the hallways and limits the amount of exposure.
Of course, the students and staff will be required to wear masks throughout the day, but each teacher is encouraged to plan some outdoor time so that students, especially the younger ones, are able to take a break from wearing masks and get some fresh air. The staff at St. Matthew’s has worked tirelessly to provide students the opportunity for a safe, in-person, learning environment to try and restore a sense of normalcy to the school year.
As mentioned, our original interview was fabulous and Liz Allen left us with a final note; “We extend our sincerest thanks to John Langlois for everything that he does for us to help St. Matthew’s and all of the Hampton Roads Catholic Schools effectively get out our message. Without him, our schools wouldn’t be able to have a multimedia advertising campaign with additional bonus ads that John is able to secure for us”.