KAPAA — Students aren’t the only ones preparing to start the new school year at St. Catherine School.
The Catholic school, which celebrated its 70th birthday last year, has overhauled its entire curriculum and leadership.
“Last year, Celina Haigh, our principal for 20 years, decided to retire. So we started getting the ball rolling,” said St. Catherine Principal Britt Cocumelli, who is entering her first full year at the helm after serving on an interim basis last school year.
Haigh’s retirement was sudden, according to Cocumelli and the Rev. Anthony Rapozo, who were taken aback by her departure.
“When she decided to retire, we were really surprised because she was doing really good and she was honest. She had a vision,” Rapozo said. “She really surprised me when she retired, so we had to go into a search for people.”
Rapozo’s search went as far as Chicago, but then he found that the right person for the job was right under his nose.
“I paid attention to each candidate’s vision of what the school was going to be,” he said. “We asked every candidate the same question: ‘What do you envision when someone graduates from eighth-grade, what do they look like?’ And everyone had a different answer because everyone had a different perspective on how to run a school, but Britt had the best answer. She envisioned that anyone who graduated from the eighth-grade would actually be graduating already at a ninth-grade level, wherever they go to high school. And that impressed me.”
Preparing students for the real world, not just ninth-grade, has been St. Catherine School’s mission under Cocumelli.
She has taken risks, spent the money needed to fix classrooms and flipped the school’s curriculum on its head from kindergarten to eighth-grade, Rapozo said.
“It’s exciting to see changes,” he said. “When I became the new pastor here three years ago, the school was already in a process of knowing that we had to change the curriculum. There can only be so much change with something who was running the show for so long; it’s hard to get that person to make changes.”
The new plan puts an emphasis on project-based learning with a curriculum that follows a student as they advance through each grade level.
“This is what parents have wanted. It’s hard to please everyone, but that’s what we’re trying to do so we can continue to grow,” Rapozo said.
Cocumelli isn’t alone in this endeavor. Melanie Slimko will serve as vice principal, along with her duties as a middle school teacher.
“This is Melanie and my first years in administration roles,” Cocumelli said. “We really want to reach out to our community and get more involved with the community this year.”
Getting more in touch with the community is one thing, but being in an administrative position has been a learning experience for Slimko, albeit a rewarding one.
“I’ve learned how to order books, I’ve learned how to write purchase orders, I’ve learned how to write up a complete teacher evaluation, so we’re learning from scratch,” she said. “But I’ve been a teacher for 14 years in all different school settings. The roles have definitely changed, and it’s 100 percent a brand new job. But it’s powerful, it’s challenging. I think Britt and I will both say that we love a good challenge, and we’re up for it.”
When Slimko was promoted to be in charge of the school’s middle school curriculum, she couldn’t wait to change the way St. Catherine’s students learn.
“Teaching to the test was the bane of my existence,” Slimko said. “I spent three months teaching kids how to fill in circles. And the lack of having that here really lets us get to know the child instead of them just being a statistic. Project-based learning is the most hands-on, real-world approach to learning.”
Slimko and Cocumelli are on their way to changing the school better, said Rapozo, who is credited for not only entrusting the them in the first place, but for also being their No. 1 supporter along the way.
“We’ve been very fortunate to have Father Anthony here. He’s been so supportive of us and he’s been with us through every decision we’ve made,” Cocumelli said. “As a team of three, it’s really good to bounce ideas off each other and support each other as a whole. Without Father Anthony, this would be extremely difficult. I mean, he’s been laying tile all summer with his bare hands. And that speaks volumes of how supportive he is of this school where he graduated from.”
Not only were the academics overhauled, the classrooms received facelifts as well, including new paint jobs and new flooring — some tiled, some wooden.
“We started with the preschool and have gutted and remodeled it,” Cocumelli said. “The physical space looks incredible. We’re currently working on revamping the preschool’s playground and a Kindergarten Readiness Program so that when they go into that world, they’re more prepared.”
Even with radical changes in curriculum and the school’s leadership, it’s important for the school’s trio of leaders to build on St. Catherine’s 70 years of tradition, using the school’s history and values as its foundation.
“We have that Catholic foundation. Father is present every single day,” Slimko said. “Our religion program is very strong, but now all of our other programs are going to be really strong.”
And even though St. Catherine School is Catholic, its students don’t have to be in order to attend. The school is still enrolling new students for the upcoming school year.
“We’re open to all faiths, this is a safe place to send your children to be who they are,” Cocumelli said. “Our doors are open for everyone in the community no matter how much they can pay. We want people to feel welcome here.”