Federation of Catholic Schools fosters collaboration

Lisa Johnston | lisajohnston@archstl.org

Cara Koen aimed her iPhone at the young student standing in front of a brightly colored bulletin board at St. Norbert School. "OK, let's do the come-and-explore part again," she told second-grader Cadence Levin.

Koen visited the Florissant school earlier this month to shoot video promoting Catholic Schools Week. As director of advancement for the Federation of Catholic Schools in the Northeast Deanery, such work is a regular part of Koen's routine.

The federation formed in 2010 as a gateway to increasing the viability, affordability and accessibility of quality Catholic education in the Northeast County Deanery of the archdiocese. It covers the nine schools — Blessed Teresa of Calcutta and Our Lady of Guadalupe in Ferguson, Sacred Heart, St. Angela Merici, St. Ferdinand, St. Norbert and St. Rose Philippine Duchesne in Florissant, Christ Light of the Nations in Spanish Lake and St. Ann in Normandy (the latter belongs to the Northwest County Deanery).

That desire for collaboration was partly born from a reorganization of Catholic schools in the Northeast Deanery in 2005, in which the deanery went from 15 schools serving 25 parishes, to eight schools serving 11 parishes. Declining enrollment numbers and increased costs in Catholic education were among the reasons for the changes.

In January, Northeast Deanery schools held meetings to consider yet new governance models for some of those schools. Among the proposals was a partnership model among four schools (St. Ferdinand, St. Angela Merici, St. Norbert and St. Rose Philippine Duchesne) that would facilitate better collaboration with resources and to assist in reducing competition among schools for funding and enrollment.

Principals and pastors from the nine schools and 11 parishes meet quarterly to set goals. Teachers across the deanery also participate in professional learning teams, sharing best practices for grade levels and subject areas. The latter effort was recognized with a national award from Today's Catholic Teacher magazine.

This year, schools in the deanery began implementing a more concentrated approach to STEM (science, technology, math and engineering), and teachers underwent training. "It gives us a chance, anytime there's something new or we want to highlight, we can reach more teachers at one time," said Ken Morr, St. Rose principal. "It makes a difference."

Koen's job is to bring all of those efforts together. She works to secure grant funding for projects, such as funding from the Koch Foundation for sacramental preparation retreats, and from SSM Health DePaul Hospital for the CatholicFIT program. She also works with a committee to develop marketing strategies to be shared among the schools.

As a first-year principal, St. Norbert principal Rebecca Nestor said she only applied at schools within the federation because she wanted that sense of unity. "As a new principal, it's kind of scary going into my first Catholic Schools Week — and (Koen's) like, 'Here's all the marketing things you need.' I know talking to principals outside of the federation, they don't have that kind of support. It feels great knowing I have somebody on my side."

Koen's roots are in north St. Louis County. Raised at the former Our Lady of Fatima School and a graduate of Incarnate Word Academy, she and her husband, Bryan, now have four children at Catholic schools in North County. "I really love the diversity," she said. "My kids are attending a school where not everybody looks like them and they all have common faith values. It's such a genuine community. Any of our (North County) schools, I would feel the same way about it." 

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