Donation will boost STEM education at Marian Middle

Lisa Johnston |

The lab for high-tech STEM instruction at Marian Middle School has a low-tech feel about it.

For example, the basement classroom has standard-issue tables, worn ones at that, instead of chemical-resistant lab tables. And the room's single electrical outlet — yes, just one — inconveniently sets above the old-school chalkboard, at about the 7-foot mark.

"You have to stand on a chair to get access to it," principal Sister Sarah Heger, CSJ, said.

As for storage, there's none, unless the four corners count.

"Four different classes use that space, so we kind of have piles in the corners," Sister Sarah said. "Like, this corner belongs to the STEM club, this corner belongs to the eighth-grade science club ..."

Granted, the building went up 75 years ago, in 1941, as the school at Holy Family Parish, which closed in 2005.

"We make it work," Sister Sarah said.

But no more. The Berges Family Foundation recently gave the school a $250,000 grant to bring its STEM area into the 21st century.

"Oh, my gosh, it's beyond cool," Sister Sarah said. "It's awesome to have a space that reflects the kinds of things we're doing and what we want to be able to do for our students."

That would be "Educating Girls for Life," the school's mantra. Rather than showing students the door upon eighth-grade graduation, Marian Middle School follows graduates in high school and college through its Graduate Support and College Readiness Program. Graduates receive academic, financial, emotional and/or social support "to make sure they are continuing to succeed" in high school and after high school, "staying on the right track to earn a college degree," according to Marian's website.

The school's mission coupled with the STEM component fit perfectly with the Berges foundation.

"We're interested in STEM education (and) exposing more women and minorities to the possibilities of a career in STEM fields," family patriarch Jim Berges said. "A) those technical jobs pay better than most, b) there's a shortage of technical people being educated in this country and c) we have an interest in helping children at risk."

Berges, a former executive at Emerson Electric, described Marian as "a high impact area to invest," with a successful track record "of moving kids to high school, having them graduate high school to university and also graduate from university.

"The best way to describe it is, 'Rather than spreading our funding a mile wide and an inch deep, we are more focused on having it an inch wide and a mile deep,' so that we get certainty of outcomes for our investments."

The Catholic component also played a role in the grant. Eight religious communities partnered 17 years ago to start the school devoted to Mary, and the Blessed Mother played a role in the family's formation and still plays a role today. Jim and his wife Kathy met and were married while students at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., and belong to Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in University City. He received Catholic education growing up in Louisville, and she in Springfield, Ill.

"They credit a lot of their values and successes in life to their Catholic educational upbringing," said Elizabeth Mannen, the foundation board member who screens grant applications for quarterly assessments. She calls Jim and Kathy Berges "pretty humble people."

Along with son Kevin, the family determined years ago to give away the majority of their assets, and formed the foundation four years ago to do so, according to Mannen. The foundation also has funded St. Louis University High's Clavius Project to help bring robotics to the middle-school level.

"Catholic education was one of things he really appreciated about our school when he visited here," Marian president Mary Elizabeth Grimes said. "He appreciated what he saw here, what the girls were receiving in terms of that Catholic enrichment."

After construction, Marian students also will receive high-tech instruction in what Grimes called "a proper STEM lab." They'll have actual lab tables, state-of-the-art equipment, dry erase boards, storage space and electrical outlets — lots of outlets.

"It'll be nice," Sister Sarah said, simply. 

Mission statements

"Marian Middle School serves adolescent girls of all religious, racial and ethnic backgrounds. We are committed to breaking the cycle of poverty by fostering comprehensive development as a foundation for college readiness." —

"The Berges Family Foundation supports the institutions and organizations that make St.Louis a great place to live, visit and invest, with contributions for cultural engagement; STEM preparedness; youth empowerment; and support for our heroes and first responders." — 

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