Kindergarten Teacher Lisa Collins asks question of her class on the first day of school at Epihany Cathedral Catholic School on Aug. 13 in Venice.

Schools open with emphasis on spiritual growth

VENICE | The opening bell rings and a few tears flow as thousands of children across the Diocese of Venice return to school for the 2018-2019 school year.

From prekindergarten to high school seniors, students will face rigorous course work that will develop them academically, physically and, most importantly, spiritually.

On the first day, friendships are renewed, new bonds are formed and new challenges are accepted by students at every level.

Epiphany Cathedral Catholic School Principal MC Heffner calls the first morning of the annual ritual of going back to school a time for “tears and cheers.” Parents and their children gathered in the school courtyard in front of the Santa Maria Chapel. There the new students lined up and got to meet their future friends for life as the anxious parents looked on with pride. The returning students renewed friendships and caught up on the latest summer adventure.

Heffner welcomed everyone back to school and said she was looking forward to a great new year, and the youngest students enthusiastically cheered when prompted. This was followed by a morning prayer service and then a dismissal to head to their first class.

Similar scenes could be found at each of the 15 Diocesan Catholic Schools where enrollment numbers are up. Each school serves as a partnership with teachers, parents, families and feeder parishes in reinforcing morality, spirituality and other important Christian values in the faith-filled teaching process. Community service is an integral part of the daily lives of the schools while also offering a number of outreach programs organized and completed by the students.

The Diocese works to stay ahead of security needs at its Catholic schools as the safety of all students, faculty and staff is of the utmost priority.

Bishop Frank J. Dewane recently told teachers at an orientation meeting the Diocese always works hard to stay ahead of any needs or concerns regarding safety at the schools. “While this is done out of an abundance of caution, the Diocese cannot ignore the realities of the world we live in today,” he said.

Donna Foti, Diocese Risk and Insurance Manager, said during the summer each school underwent an independent risk assessment to review the physical buildings and crisis response. This included: looking at the training of faculty and staff; having proper safety equipment; the physical security of buildings; and taking part in different types of safety or emergency drills.

Foti said these assessments are done in collaboration with appropriate community first responders, and noted that the parents are an important part of the process and are informed of any new security measure when appropriate.

“This is not a static process but an ongoing one,” Foti said. “We have built on lessons learned from around the world to ensure we are doing everything possible to create a safe environment for our students, faculty and staff.”

The returning students at several schools will notice a few changes and some ongoing construction.
At St. Francis Xavier Catholic School in Fort Myers, there is a new music room and performing arts center. This building has “whisper” walls and ceiling to minimize the sounds reaching other classrooms.

The school is also going through a major renovation to the central courtyard, which, when finished in September, will include a new prayer garden area, solar shades, a new eating area as well as new sidewalks. Other work at the school includes completing repairs of damage caused by Hurricane Irma. The finishing touches are in the process of taking place, with the last section of roof coming soon.

St. Elizabeth Seton School in Naples is also still recovering from Hurricane Irma and repairs to the main school building are ongoing. This means the students from Pre-K3 to fifth grade returned to their temporary portable classrooms while work continues. The portables were opened in April allowing the major repair work to commence. Principal Maria Niebuhr said the goal is to have everyone back into permanent classrooms sometime in the fall.

While St. Joseph Catholic School in Bradenton had no hurricane damage, Father Tomasz Zalewski, Pastor of St. Joseph Parish, focused on installing hurricane-resistant windows in all school structures. The windows not only protect the structures but bring aesthetic elegancy for much-needed improvement. This project was inspired by a visit of St. Joseph students to see the damage at St. Elizabeth Seton Catholic School in Naples.

St. Martha Catholic School in Sarasota did not have any major renovations to its campus this summer, however there is new playground equipment outside. In addition, the school has converted its technology lab into a fully functioning STREAM (Science, Technology, Religion, Engineering, Arts and Math) lab, which is an area for teachers and students to create projects that touch on all areas of STREAM.

St. John Neumann Catholic High School in Naples is building a memorial garden in honor of a teacher and a student, both of whom passed away in recent months. Bishop Dewane will bless this garden and a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary when he visits to celebrate a school Mass in late August.

Neumann is also starting a new House program, which is a variation on the traditional student government and allows for a closer interaction between students at all grade levels as well as with advisers. Neumann Principal Sister Patricia Roche noted that this House program is in response to the many emotional needs of the student body.

These are just a few examples of what is new at Diocese of Venice Catholic Schools as the new school year kicks off.