Chicagoland

Neighborhood ties help West Lawn school build enrollment

By Julio Rangel
February 8, 2016

Neighborhood ties help West Lawn school build enrollment

Principal Candice Usauskas assists first grade student Antonio Ochoa at St. Mary Star of the Sea School on Dec. 16 (Karen Callaway/Catholic New World)
Cassandra Ramirez, a first grader, practices counting on her fingers. (Karen Callaway/Catholic New World)
Oscar Valencia helps his kindergarten buddy Gianacarlo Guzman. (Karen Callaway/Catholic New World)
Angela Bazaldua helps her kindergarten buddy Itzel Gonzalez with her studies (Karen Callaway/Catholic New World)
Adrian Diaz reads during class at St. Mary Star of the Sea School on Dec. 16. (Karen Callaway/Catholic New World)
Ruby Pliego and AJ Tabaresl work in their classrooms on Dec. 16. (Karen Callaway/Catholic New World)
Kindergarten students work with their seventh grade buddies at St. Mary Star of the Sea School on Dec. 16. (Karen Callaway/Catholic New World)

Schools often play a key role in connecting their neighborhoods and building their communities across generations.

St. Mary Star of the Sea, 6424 S. Kenneth, is no exception, and it is finding that its ties to the community are helping it grow as well.

The school, which has adopted the slogan “A star in the heart of the neighborhood,” saw its enrollment increase from about 155 at the end of last school year to 225 now, said Candice Usauskas, the school’s principal.

An added emphasis on attracting Hispanic families also helped, she said, as 80 percent of the students are Hispanic.

Usauskas, as well as half the school’s teachers, attended St. Mary Star of the Sea.

“What sets us apart is that we have a Catholic identity,” said Usauskas. “We go to Mass twice a month.”

The day starts with prayer led by a student from the public address system and children pray in the classroom.

While the school performs well academically — students regularly score above the national average in the TerraNova tests — it faces financial challenges.

“Our neighborhood is working class,” Usauskas said. “Our families are struggling to put their children through school. For them, their faith is very important, but they struggle financially.”

One widespread notion among Hispanics is that Catholic schools are not affordable, she said.

“People tell me, ‘I can’t afford it,’” said Usauskas; “and I always tell them, ‘Come see me.’ We are fortunate to receive money from Caritas and Big Shoulders.”

Different financial resources are available to parents, especially at the beginning of the year, before the funds are allocated, she said.

“I attended this school myself,” she explained. “I live in this neighborhood. These are not only my students, but my neighbors and fellow parishioners. So when I cannot offer them a place in the school due to their financial situation, it truly breaks my heart because this is what I think is our mission.”

For Salvador Hernandez it is very important that his children get a Catholic education. Three of Hernandez’s children attend St. Mary’s and the family only lives three blocks away from the school.

When he and his wife, Micaela, moved to the neighborhood 10 years ago, they weren’t thinking about enrolling their children at St. Mary’s but became convinced after attending an open house. The level of involvement from the teachers impressed him.

“It is very encouraging to know that there is someone out there to reinforce what we as parents teach our children at home,” he said.

Hernandez works as a financial analyst in downtown Chicago but his true passion is Mexican folk dance.

“My wife and I have danced for 15 years,” he said.

They wanted to share this tradition with their children, but couldn’t find a place offering classes nearby.

“We had a conversation with a couple of people [at the school]” Hernandez said. It took us two or three years to organize it, but this year we started with about 10 children who were interested, and soon climbed to 30.”

There are now close to 35 children enrolled in folk-dance classes, from kindergarten through eighth grade.

With the involvement of parents who volunteer, after-school activities have multiplied at St. Mary.

“We have a choir, we have a band” said Usauskas. “We hope to start a children’s mariachi, and I hope it can be linked with what Mr. Hernandez is doing.”

A donor gave them several brass instruments, but they are need of repair. Once they are repaired the school will look for someone to teach the students to play them. They also hope to offer violin lessons.

Spanish classes will begin this year too.

“We have never had language classes before, so it is new in the curriculum,” the principal said. “We have made the school day longer, so they can take extra classes in math and language.”

The school recently upgraded its computer lab and installed wireless Internet.

“We’re really moving the school technology-wise,” said Usauskas.

The teachers also appreciate their ties to the community.

“I went to school here, my children went to school here, my brothers and sisters went to school here,” said Rose Evans who teaches eighth grade. “I really love the school.”

For Usauskas, the importance of strengthening ties between the school and the community has been vital.

“I think that’s a blessing because what you find in the neighborhood is what we have in the school,” she said. “This is one of the best parts of being a neighborhood school. You can walk on the street and you know the people there. Because you and they are parishioners and know each other as neighbors.”

Topics:

  • hispanic
  • caritas scholars program
  • west lawn
  • st. mary star of the sea

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