Catholic grade schools prepare students for high school starting early

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, October 4, 2023

As eighth graders from across the Archdiocese of Chicago prepare for the next phase of their academic careers, Catholic school educators say that preparing for high school starts long before students get to eighth grade, or even middle school.

Rather, Catholic schools begin working to educate and form students as soon as they walk through the doors, often when they are as young as 3 years old.

“We really look to have St. Mary students to be, number one, students of virtue,” said Beth Dolack, principal of St. Mary of the Angels School, 1801 N. Hermitage Ave. “We really look to instill the core values in the entire school, even preschoolers. By middle school, they are not only recited rotely, but lived, more than anything. We are kind, we are respectful, we are responsible and we make smart choices. … It’s having that outlook of magnanimity. Good friend, good spouse and good disciple.”

“We tend to be focused on the process now, when really the focus is on the process throughout,” said Donna Terrasi, an eighth grade teacher at St. Clement and part of the school’s high school preparation team. “It’s the general approach to school, building positive mindset about school and a growth mindset about school. It’s a process; it’s not just about the bottom line. But if you pay attention to the process, you’ll often see it in the bottom line.”

Most Holy Redeemer School in Evergreen Park looks explicitly at what characteristics it wants its graduates to have when they move on to high schools, with 12 attributes listed under spiritual development, intellectual development and 21st century preparedness, said Principal Dan Turney.

While the school works on developing the attributes in students of all ages, especially things like learning to read, write and listen effectively and fostering a meaningful relationship with God, the focus does increase on other attributes in middle school, Turney said.

“One of our attributes is servant leaders,” he said. “We have a dedicated leadership curriculum that sixth, seventh and eighth graders throughout their day.”

The program teaches sixth and seventh graders about making connections and working together. In eighth grade, students work in teams that tackle projects to make the school better. Past projects include running after school open gym for younger students to play sports, or adding a day brightener to the morning announcements, Turney said.

Dolack said that middle school is a time to emphasize the virtues that students have developed and focus on how they can continue to model those virtues as they move through their lives, including, for example, by teaching middle schoolers how to use the Internet appropriately.

Middle school students in Catholic schools also help set an example for younger students, serving as “Mass buddies” or “reading buddies” or in other multi-age groups, leaders said.

At the same time, schools are working to make sure all of their students are growing academically.

That takes a particular focus for students hoping to go to Catholic schools with competitive admissions, or those in Chicago who hope to attend public selective enrollment schools or schools of choice.

Dolack said St. Mary of the Angels was proud that all members of the graduating class of 2022 were admitted to the schools they set their sights on.

She attributes that to the school’s academic strength and working with each family to identify schools that would be good fits for their students and helping students prepare for the test.

Dennis Huyck’s daughter, Dylan, graduated from St. Mary of the Angels this past spring and now is a freshman at St. Ignatius College Prep. His son, Kieran, is a sixth grader at St. Mary of the Angels.

Huyck said he started reaching out to high school admissions teams when Dylan was approaching middle school and was pleased to learn that they saw St. Mary of the Angels students as well prepared for high school.

Now that Dylan has started at St. Ignatius, he sees how much more than academics go into it.

“She absolutely loves being there,” Huyck said. “The community at St. Mary of the Angels is so important — learning how to develop friendships, learning how important the social aspect is. She’s making tons of friends.”

He also credits Dolack and her team with knowing all of the graduating eighth graders well, so that they could help them find high schools that would be a good match.

Personal attention in Catholic elementary schools also helps teachers tailor instruction for each student, Turley said, something that is possible with small class sizes. Most Holy Redeemer students often attend several nearby Catholic high schools, including Marist, Mother McAuley Liberal Arts High School and Brother Rice High School.

“We spend a lot of time looking at data for and with each kid to see where they are on grade level, how much they’ve grown, where they need to grow,” Turney said. “Our teachers do a lot with personalizing the learning experience.”

Terassi said St. Clement teachers use much of the same information from the iReady diagnostic tests that Illinois students take three times each school year.

“I think really, while our focus is not necessarily on the high schools, but on our own process and curriculum,” she said. “Are we meeting our standards and constantly looking to improve our curriculum?”

St. Clement also works on helping students develop the executive function needed to succeed in high school, where they might be more challenged by the need to stay organized and on top of assignments than by the content of the courses they take.

“How do we take notes, how do we organize our stuff?” Terassi said. “All those things that we have to do when we get to high school. All our kids have lockers, so they learn how to manage that.”

All the work Catholic schools do in middle school, leaders said, is aimed not only at getting their graduates to take the next step, but also to help them feel ready.

“We want them to approach high school with confidence,” Terassi said.


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