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Making Catholic School: A 'Second Home for Students'

A 2011 National Distinguished Principal Award Winner, Yvonne Schwab has served as the principal at St. James the Less Catholic School for the last eight years.

Yvonne SchwabI believe that every child is unique and should be treasured. We have a diverse population at St. James the Less, and I work with our staff to develop the potential and the promise that each student possesses. Our children come from Vietnam, Cambodia, China, Russia, Kenya, Nigeria, Ghana, Mexico, El Salvador, Puerto Rico and all parts of the United States.  We have children of all faiths, income levels, academic levels, and family structures.  I believe that we are a window to the world and this gift of diversity allows us to relate to everyone as brothers and sisters in Christ. 

I believe Catholic schools should be a second home to their students. At St. James, I have worked with our staff to create that family atmosphere.  One eighth grader told me; “It may sound weird to hear an eighth grader say they love to come to school.  But I do because here, there is no chaos.  I know that the teachers and you will be here every day. I will have class, get lunch and someone will help me with whatever I need.”  Our faith calls us to open our arms and our hearts to the children under our care. 

I have come to realize that this concept of home must extend to the wider parish community.  Eight years ago, our pastor, at that time, began with one Spanish Mass and an attendance of 50.  This has grown to two Masses and attendance of over 500.  At that same time, we made a conscious decision to dedicate ourselves to find ways to incorporate Latinos students into St. James the Less Catholic School.  As the parish grew, we also grew from two Latino students to 250 this school year.  As a staff, we prepared for this by taking Spanish language and culture classes.  We have added two English as a Second Language(ESL) teachers, as well as provided staff development on best practices for teaching ESL students.    We revised our forms and all types of communication to be bilingual.  We hired three bilingual staff members.  Spanish language began to be taught to all students.  Spanish was taught to English speakers to broaden their knowledge and Spanish for our Spanish speakers to help them retain their culture.  Our efforts became the bridge for the integration of our new students into the St. James the Less Catholic family.

It is my conviction that Catholic schools should meet children where they are.  At St. James the Less Catholic School, our approach is that we will do whatever it takes to help a child progress.  We feel that we can help everyone.  We have become leaders in differentiation and inclusion. Classroom teachers regularly differentiate instruction and assessment to meet the needs of every child.  We also have a full time learning disabilities teacher and are able to serve children who need more extensive interventions and accommodations. We made a commitment to expand our arts and music program, and this has allowed our students a creative outlet and an opportunity to participate in activities outside the classroom. We have created an atmosphere where students are not afraid to be different, not afraid to ask for help, not afraid to be themselves. A young man came to us in seventh grade way below grade level. He had the misfortune of losing his dad to violence right in front of him. In tenth grade, he ran all the way across the football field to hug me and say, “I passed all parts of the Ohio Graduation Test. Now I can think about college.”  It has become apparent to me that the mission of Catholic schools should be to provide that kind of hope to everyone. 

I am convinced that Catholic schools provide a wonderful opportunity to develop committed citizens who understand social justice teachings.  During the last six years, St. James the Less Catholic School has been dedicated to authentic service learning. Students across the grade levels work on projects that are embedded in the curriculum in order to see the connection between what they are learning and the issue they are addressing.  We have done global projects in India, Africa, Chili and Peru.  Two years ago when the children studied the recession and current state of the economy, they felt the need to help closer to home.  We partnered with several local agencies that help underprivileged and terminally ill children. This year’s focus has us fundraising to build houses in El Salvador and to support housing programs in Columbus, Ohio. Although our students are not wealthy (80 % are below poverty level), they recognize and are thankful for their blessings. They understand the Catholic call to service. One student commented, “At St. James, we believe that we can save the world. We just have to do it one village at a time.”  

I am grateful for the challenge and opportunities that our school population has presented to me. I am blessed by a staff that works tirelessly to help students feel that they have the potential to achieve and make a difference. I enjoy each and every child, and I believe that we can nurture their education and their faith development.

Yvonne Schwab has been the principal at St. James the Less Catholic School and is a 2011 National Distinguished Principal Award and National Catholic Education Association Distinguished Principal Award Winner.