Summary of today’s show: Continuing Catholic Schools Week, Scot Landry and Fr. Chris O’Connor talk with Martha McCook, principal of Immaculate Conception School in Marlborough, about their remarkable success as a small pre-school through eighth grade school, including dominating the rankings of a national mathematics scholarship program; using advanced technology in the curriculum; providing faith formation that helps students grow spiritually; being a light in the parish and community and an extended family for students and their families; and a place where children of diverse backgrounds and economic circumstances come together.
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Today’s host(s): Scot Landry and Fr. Chris O’Connor
Today’s guest(s): Martha McCook
Links from today’s show:
Today’s topics: Catholic Schools Week: Immaculate Conception School, Marlborough
1st segment: Scot Landry said it’s the second day of Catholic Schools Week. He welcomed Fr. Chris O’Connor to the show. He said he will be at Cheverus School in Malden on Friday to celebrate Mass with them and said he has an appreciation for Catholic education as a product of Catholic schools. Scot said we’ll be profiling specific schools this week, including Immaculate Conception School in Marlborough.
Scot asked Fr. Chris about the seminarians who traveled to Washington, DC, last for the March for Life via the train. He said they told him it was a wonderful profound experience. He said the seminarians were able to serve at the Vigil Mass at the Shrine of the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception because Cardinal Seán was the principal celebrant. He said the procession at the Mass alone takes a good 30 minutes. He said seminarians come from all over the country. Scot said it’s one of the biggest gatherings of the US Catholic Church each year. It shows how important and central the abortion issue is as the central moral issue today.
2nd segment: Scot and Fr. Chris welcomed Martha McCook of Immaculate Conception School in Marlborough to the show. Martha is the principal of the school. She’s been there for 26 years. She said the school has 225 students from diverse backgrounds. The school is in three separate buildings: The convent school is an early childhood center for pre-school through Grade 1; the lower school is for 2 through 5; and the middle school is grades 6 through 8. Each building is designed to address the unique needs of each group of learners. Many parents like that all their children can be in the same schedule and timeframe but in schools adapted for them. The schools are located on the same street in town.
Martha said they live their faith everyday and they try to instill in their students that the kindness God instills in us needs to be extended to each and every person that they meet. And that we don’t need to be afraid to show out Catholic faith and what a gift that faith is.
Scot asked how the school has changed over the years. She said the needs of the students have changed. Some of the three-year-olds are proficient with iPads for instance and so they have to adapt their teaching styles and technology. Every classroom has a SMART Board and state-of-the-art computers. Many parents want the school to keep up with technology. Nevertheless it’s their Catholic identity that remains the purpose for the school.
Fr. Chris asked how the school is celebrating Catholic Schools Week. She said parents have come into their children’s classrooms with special presentations from their kids. On Wednesday, the middle school is having an academic bowl encompassing all subjects. She said they teach the children Spanish starting with the three-year-olds.
Scot asked how the school was able to afford the technology. Martha said they set high standards and expect more because their calling is to get each to their potential. The middle school math program has been competing in Raytheon’s Math Moves curriculum which encourages students to prepare for careers in science, technology, engineering, and math. Their students win amazing awards, including $1,000 scholarships which come with a matching grant for the school and so far they’ve received $54,000 in scholarships. One student also has won a $20,000 college scholarship.
Scot said he’s amazed to see how a small school in Marlborough is cleaning up nationally on all these math awards. He asked Martha to what she attributes their success. She said in addition to the Math excellence, they have a “writing across the curriculum” program that starts in pre-K. Communication is an essential skill, including the ability to write in many genre. They need to be able to write in non-fiction and fiction, correspondence and business plans. Scot noted that the Math Moves program includes an essay component. Martha said the students have written about how they like the different math-related challenges, including robotics, as well as science programs. They learn that they’re not just learning each subject in different silos, but see how they integrate with each other and into their lives.
She said one thing they do is to teach children how to deal with cash and money because parents today generally tend to pay everything with debit cards. So they teach practical life skills related to math, like handling money or calculating home improvements and the like.
Fr. Chris said the way we teach and educate are changing, but are the kids changing? Martha said the children haven’t changed in that they come eager to learn. But how you reach them and how you keep their attention has changed. You get to know the families and the sense of family and sense of community is a source of strength for Immaculate Conception School. She noted that after the Newtown shootings a little girl said to her on the first day back to school that she knew Fr. Michael would talk to the Marlborough students, they’d have Mass, and then everything would be okay.
Scot said the academic bar is set so high at IC Marlborough, how do they benchmark themselves against? He can’t imagine there are many schools who are the level they are. Martha said it comes from faith. The staff feel they have been called by God to bring out all the gifts and talents of the children. They want to ensure that when the kids move on to secondary schools, they keep touch to see how they’re continuing to do so that the school can make adjustments to its programs.
Martha talked about her decision to come to the school 26 years ago. They moved from Connecticut to Marlborough when husband moved from academia to business. She volunteered at the school where her children were attending. The school had no language program and no real library and because she had advanced degrees and experience in those areas, the pastor asked her come and establish a library and a foreign language program. She did that in the first year including teaching French in Grades 7 and 8. The next year, she became principal.
Fr. Chris asked her to describe her staff and why they choose to teach there. Martha said many of them are drawn to the fact they can teach and don’t have to leave Jesus at the door and can impart their faith to the students. They like the community and family atmosphere. They like the high standards and realize they’re going to keep up with what’s going on in education. Seventy-percent have advanced degrees and those who do not are required to take a graduate course every other year in order to qualify for salary increases. They have to keep their credentials up to keep abreast of what’s new. But they all have callings and know they are called to nurture the faith of the students and develop them as whole children of God.
Scot asked what they do to develop faith in the school outside of the regular academic classes. Martha said they have religion classes and prayer several times a day. They also have service outside the school. They learn very early on not only to count their blessings but then to share those blessings with the less fortunate. They have coat drives for children and food drives. They encourage parents to help the children earn money for their donations. They do things on both the large scale and small scale. All the fifth grade students have a first grade reading buddy. All the middle school students have Mass partners, so they are responsible during all-school Masses to help children from the lower grades with getting from their classrooms to Mass and staying with them.
Martha said they have a middle school Mass every week in addition to the monthly all-school Mass. She said the parish priests celebrate a Mass geared toward middle school kids, who are in a critical phase of development. It gives them tools for dealing with the issues that come up in their lives and the kids come to love the Mass. They are asked to write journals at the end of the year and they often reflect on specific Gospels they hear and how they’ve relied on them to make the right choices.
3rd segment: Fr. Chris related a story of one parochial school and the parish priest who one girl called God. He said he’s not God, but he’s called to be God-like, especially in working with children, exhibiting God’s love and compassion. Martha said because the school is so faith-based, it’s natural for the students to gather in prayer. They learn to turn to God and they learn that prayer works. It also draws the families in. They have four sets of parents and three middle school students who are in RCIA in the parish this year.
Martha said Marlborough is in the Metrowest at the intersection of Mass Pike and 495. It’s been a high-tech and banking region. It’s also home to diverse Spanish and Brazilian communities. They have worked hard to have the school represent the parish and community so they have asked Catholic Schools Foundation and others to provide scholarships for lower-income students.
She said during Advent each classroom adopts families from a list provided by the social service agencies and the children provide clothing and gifts and Christmas dinners for adopted families. The children get to see the effect of their assistance. They see students who give away their birthday money or give their birthday presents to children who are less fortunate.
They also have lots of socialization, such as school dances, movie nights, outdoor activities, field day, sports teams. At the end of Catholic Schools Week they have an adult trivia night for faculty, staff, parents, and priests. It’s a way for the parents to relax and enjoy. Scot said the school becomes an anchor in the parish and community’s life.
Scot asked if there are many non-Catholic families. Martha said 12 percent are not Catholic, whether Protestant or having no religion. She said all the children go home wanting to pray and the parents say they are so impressed by the children’s spirituality that they want to be part of it.
Scot asked about all the students learning Spanish. Martha said she speaks to the Spanish-language Masses in the parish a few times a year and they find that the students have come to recognize that some of their classmates speak another language and want to do so as well. Martha said the goal is both conversational Spanish, but also to help them place into advanced Spanish levels in high school.
Martha talked about the financial health of the school. The archdiocese provides a metric for all schools and Immaculate Conception gets a perfect school. They’re always looking to expand opportunity for scholarships without raising tuition. they have zero-based budgeting and they don’t take any money from the parish. The school is sound and solid.
Martha noted that most elementary schools now have advancement directors. They have found that you need to look beyond current families, but need to look to alumni, businesses, grandparents of students and others who might want to support the school and help them remain fiscally strong. Scot asked if it’s difficult to get financial help from alumni given all the demands on them. How do you get them from being a grateful alumni to one who helps to underwrite expenses. Martha said they reach out to them with a school magazine and show the school as active in the community.
Fr. Chris noted that the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph used to be actively involved in the school and there are some sisters still connected to the school. There is a retirement convent for Sisters of St. Chretienne and some of them come in and provide tutoring help. Martha said these are the only religious sisters that some of the students will ever come in contact with.
4th segment: Scot said Immaculate Conception school was founded in 1910. He noted that Martha had said that the priests of the parish were key to the life of the school. Martha said they are blessed with the pastor, who is involved in he school, does the liturgies, comes to parent meetings, and is involved in all aspects of school life. They also have had a succession of parochial vicars, almost right out of seminary.
Scot asked Martha if the school has a wishlist. Martha said they would love to look into funding for a foreign-language immersion program, which she doesn’t think any
Catholic school in the region has.
Fr. Chris asked about sacramental preparation. Martha talked about First Reconciliation and First Communion in the second grade as a wonderful focus. She sees the gift develop in the students of how important the Eucharist is for them.
Martha talked about how people can contact the school through their website and how many families come from outside Marlborough.