The pandemic has highlighted the need for costly technology upgrades at all 37 Catholic grade schools and three Catholic high schools in the Jefferson City diocese.
Then came a light in the tunnel.
A group of donors who wish to remain anonymous has made a one-time, $2.2 million gift to the diocese to help bring Catholic schools’ technology up-to-par with that of their public school counterparts.
“The benefits are unlimited,” said Ann Gray, principal of Mary Immaculate School in Kirksville. “This helps us stay competitive, giving families the option of choosing a Catholic school where their children can receive a strong education in faith, service and academics.”
Students of all ages will benefit.
Upgrades range from faster internet access to interactive TVs for in-school instruction, to new, age-appropriate wireless devices for students to use in class and at home if necessary.
“Teachers will be able to implement technology through their lessons, using their Smartboards, Chromebooks, and high-speed internet,” said Jacob Akin, principal of Our Lady of the Snows School in Mary’s Home.
“The faster internet speeds will also help teachers with lesson-planning,” he added, “as we have shifted to provide all of our lesson plans online and digital so that they can be shared anywhere.”
Government-mandated stay-at-home orders and CDC guidelines for slowing the spread of COVID-19 this spring meant students throughout the diocese spent their entire fourth quarter learning from home.
Catholic-school administrators and teachers then set about evaluating their distance-learning efforts and planning for how to improve them if necessary.
“Much of our summer and fall has been focused on how we can quickly move to remote learning for one student or all students quickly while meeting the essential standards for each grade level,” said Kathy Coulson, principal of St. Brendan School in Mexico.
She said that has meant incorporating more technology into the school day, giving students another way to learn in the classroom while preparing them to use the same devices independently at home if needed.
“Providing all students with access to additional technology during the school day will make this easier for all grade levels so they no longer have to schedule it and share,” Mrs. Coulson added.
Schools can no longer view technology as a luxury.
It’s part of life.
“Technology is a tool that students use to learn and apply skills,” said Mrs. Coulson. “For its use to be truly effective, they have to be able to use it in a manner applicable to real-life scenarios.”
No turning back
Debbie Reinkemeyer, principal of Holy Family School in Freeburg and Sacred Heart School in Rich Fountain, noted that technology has become a key component in the way that students interact with their teachers.
It’s not just for virtual or distance learning.
“It is the tool that the students use to receive assignments and submit them to the teachers,” she said. “It is where they keep all of their information — not in binders and folders anymore.”
Also, when a student is absent, he or she can use a wireless device to see and hear the instruction that the teacher is providing, she said.
Mrs. Gray said making proper use of a variety of interactive education devices helps students in all grades learn better.
“These new technologies will not only improve our learning environment but help the teachers with flexibility, reusability and a variety of tools to make learning engaging,” she stated.
She said active learning is always better than passive instruction.
“Students will be able to work collaboratively on projects, brainstorm, work through experiments, create presentations, pull content from the internet and teach valuable life lessons and skills to use in their future vocations,” she said.
One giant leap
Dr. Erin Vader, diocesan superintendent of Catholic schools, called the donors’ anonymous gift “a text-book — or maybe a Chromebook — definition of what it means to be a good steward.”
“You’re talking about people who understand that all they’ve been given is a blessing from God, and they want to share those blessings with other people,” she said.
“And they’ve done it in a way that not only impacts our schools but actually the next generation of Catholic Christians,” she stated. “Imagine what we could do in our Church if everyone gave to the extent that they are able the way these donors have. Imagine all the good we could do!”
The gift will allow Holy Family and Sacred Heart Schools to upgrade all of their technology, much of which is past its service life.
They will purchase Chromebooks for students in grades 1-8, iPads for students in preschool and kindergarten, new laptops for the teachers, and interactive TV screens in the classrooms.
“The new Chromebooks will be more efficient and will be used throughout the school day to aid in each student’s learning,” said Mrs. Reinkemeyer.
All of this will help teachers do their work more effectively and efficiently.
“Our teachers must have the equipment necessary to engage and interact with the students,” she said. “It is their responsibility to ensure that the students learn what they need in order to be successful at the next level.”
Our Lady of the Snows School will purchase more-specialized equipment for teachers and students at each grade level, and will make its internet service about 10 times faster.
Younger students who cannot type don’t get much use out of a machine with a keyboard, so the school is buying touch-screen iPads for them.
Faster internet will mean more students can use the devices for learning at the same time.
St. Brendan School will purchase Chromebooks for its seventh- and eighth-graders.
“This was important to our math teacher so that students could digitally create graphs and work with coordinate planes,” said Mrs. Coulson.
Younger students will receive touch-screen iPads.
All of this will allow students of all ages to move to remote learning on very short notice.
The school will also upgrade its wiring and Wi-Fi infrastructure and connect its two separate buildings to a single intercom system.
Upgrades at St. Martin School in St. Martins will include new laptop computers for the teachers, Chromebooks for most of the students, new touch-board screens in the classrooms and video cameras that will allow classes to be livestreamed for students at home.
The school will also buy a new internet server to connect to the new fiber-optic network that’s being built nearby.
All of this will minimize the time teachers spend trying to work with outdated or worn-out equipment.
“We will be light years ahead of where we were before and it will help the overall learning experience of our students and hopefully make life a little easier for our teachers,” said Father Jason Doke, pastor of St. Martin Parish.
This unanticipated gift has lifted a heavy burden from each of the schools.
“The reaction to the gift has been one of absolute gratitude and joy,” said Fr. Doke. “All of the teachers have been overwhelmed by what this will mean for our school.”
“This is the work of God and I am thankful to the people who listened to His call,” said Mrs. Coulson. “Because of COVID-19, we have felt moments of darkness, fear, frustration and sadness. This gift was a great reminder that we are in God’s hands.”
The new technology isn’t just for math and science.
Mrs. Gray talked about ways Mary Immaculate School’s religious education programs will benefit from the upgrades.
She cited the ability to display religious art; use Google Earth for virtual visits to the Holy Land; praying the Rosary live with others; use the interactive resources for their religion series; finding ways to incorporate the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy into everyday life; and enhance the school’s Catholic identity.
“This is one true act of mercy,” said Mr. Akin. “God is working through His people. The donors that have given to the schools are working through God’s mercy and helping Him reach the little disciples in the Catholic Schools.”
The principals cautioned that while this gift is substantial and enormously helpful, the costly work of education continues, and everyone has an important role in supporting it.
“Buildings must be maintained, boilers replaced, pavement resurfaced,” Mrs. Coulson noted. “Many of our schools work with a fraction of the faculty and staff truly needed because the expense of salaries, retirement and benefits is too great.
“There is so much that goes into running a school,” she stated. “Providing this service to God and His people does bring a lot of joy, but it is with sacrifice and real concern about what may come tomorrow financially.”
The schools must continue looking ahead as technology continues to progress.
“We keep planning ahead for the future and do what we can to be prepared and better off than we were the year before or even the day before,” said Mr. Akin.
He noted that Catholics are called to be good stewards of the Church’s great works, including its schools.
“Yes, we have received a ‘big donation,’” he said, “but our jobs are never done as there will always be other places to grow at our school.
“These teachers have done so much to reach and assist with all students’ education during this time of uncertainty,” he said. “We owe them continued support — whether through additional donations, time, or talent — as we strive to do as Catholics supporting our faith and disciples of the Lord.”
“The whole idea is to give what you can when you can,” said Dr. Vader. “That’s the whole point of this gift. We should be inspired by it.”
Mrs. Gray called to mind Thomas Merton’s observation that “to be grateful is to recognize the love of God in everything.”
“Some people make choices that change the world. Thank you to the anonymous donors for being among them,” she said. “Your donation will change the lives of Mary Immaculate students today, tomorrow and for years to come.”
Mrs. Reinkemeyer said she has recognized God at work in the people who have risen up to help each other, especially during the pandemic.
“I see God in our teachers each day as they do all that they can to keep our students safe and help them learn,” she said. “I see God in our students, who have been so cooperative and flexible in adjusting to changes that need to be made.
“I have seen God in our parents through their support for the schools and willingness to help in any way that they can. I see God in so many people who have supported our parishes and schools through these trying financial times.
“This wonderful gift is another way that God is working through others,” she said.