The shift to online learning brought about by the Covid-19 outbreak has posed enormous difficulties for all educational institutions. But a small network of Long Island schools, operated by the Marianist Province of Meribah, has adapted better than most, running a full slate of remote instructional and community activities since New York State mandated the closure of school buildings in mid-March. The network’s advantage didn’t consist in their finances or the socioeconomic status of students; it came from somewhere deeper—the schools’ mission.
The Marianist schools have a permanent core of values that goes well beyond the measurement of academic outcomes. They attract students whose families appreciate those values, putting enormous trust in the brothers and laypeople stewarding the network. During a crisis—not just the Covid-19 pandemic, but past crises, too, including the September 11 terrorist attacks—the schools have demonstrated the importance of such a culture and trust in building institutional resilience.
The Marianist Province of Meribah, a small community of Catholic brothers and priests, operate their network—it consists of two high schools, a middle school, and an elementary school—in Nassau County, just outside of New York City. For a long time, the province had just one school, Chaminade High School for boys, founded in 1930, during the heyday of Catholic education. As the twentieth century proceeded, Catholic education began to struggle, with massive enrollment declines and a growing belief, even among the faithful, that parochial schools were antiquated. Against that troubling backdrop, the province demonstrated its resilience by opening new schools. In 1987, it established Kellenberg Memorial High School, as well as the Brother Joseph C. Fox Latin School, serving grades six through eight in the same building. Then, in 2004, the province took over a local parochial elementary school that was about to close and transformed it into the St. Martin de Porres Marianist School, which now thrives in an economically and racially diverse community. The network serves 4,700 students overall. The three newer schools all opened as enrollment was plummeting in the local diocese, as it was in so many other areas, making the Marianists’ success strikingly countercultural.
Across the network, 20 percent of students are black or Hispanic, though the demographics vary by school. In Chaminade, just 7 percent are from these demographic groups, compared with 25 percent of Kellenberg and the Latin School students and 89 percent of St. Martin’s. The students come from 114 separate public school districts, including 12 of New York City’s community school districts.
The Marianists follow the example of their founder, the Roman Catholic priest William Joseph Chaminade (1761-1850). Like the early Christians, French Catholics of Chaminade’s day were persecuted for practicing their faith, which the radicals of the French Revolution sought to crush. But Chaminade understood that faith lives in the heart, indifferent to state laws. Refusing to sign an oath pledging himself to the secular values of the French Revolution, he founded the Society of Mary, or the Marianists, with a mission to foster community among the faithful and disseminate the teachings of the faith, however difficult the world’s circumstances. That spirit informs the current efforts of these suburban Catholic schools to keep teaching—and teaching effectively—during a pandemic.
In responding to the Covid-19 outbreak, schools—public and private—have faced enormous challenges, including fostering student access to technology, creating procedures for virtual classroom interaction, and developing virtual student assessments in lieu of in-person quizzes and examinations. Struggling with such demands, many schools have cancelled their educational offerings for the rest of the school year.
High schools have the additional problem of making graduation decisions for the class of 2020. New York State has cancelled the June and August administrations of Regents exams, used to determine student eligibility for graduation. Private and religious schools, like the Marianist high schools, aren’t required to administer the state exams and can determine their own student-assessment programs. The Marianist standards revolve around exams given in all subjects at the end of the fall and winter trimesters and a three-hour comprehensive exam in each subject at the end of the spring trimester, covering the year’s material. With New York requiring that schools remain closed for the rest of the school year, the Marianist high schools couldn’t give year-end exams. Instead, third-trimester grades were based on homework, attendance in the remote classes, and a final project.
The effect of the 2020 closures will be felt long after the school year is over. Even schools that didn’t cancel educational work for the remainder of the school year, anecdotal evidence suggests, often scaled back efforts, suspending traditional attendance record-keeping and grading, for example. Others limited instruction to video lessons, which offered no interaction. By the start of the new academic year, these schools will need to prepare for the possibility of further remote learning, if another wave of infections occurs. This will entail developing universal access to remote learning for students, upgrading systems and content, and training staff to make remote instruction more effective. Federal dollars will likely flow to support this effort; vendors looking to tap that money will develop new products and services, leading to the creation of an education-preparedness industry.
Fortunately, schools and districts can learn from peers that have implemented remote learning effectively. Some charter networks, including Success Academy and Uncommon schools, swiftly adjusted to the pandemic, and can serve as models, and doubtless other charters and public school districts have managed the transition effectively. The Marianist schools offer a particularly strong example. All schools in the network have implemented daily lessons for their students, including homework assignments, and continued their grading policies, as amended for the inability to hold end-of-year in-class exams. The two high schools and the Latin middle school have conducted daily live instruction. Over the last few years, these schools have enhanced their use of technology, even while remaining true to their rich culture. Their approach to technological advancement now lies at the heart of the new remote-learning initiative.
Commencing with the entering class of 2014, the Marianist high schools and middle school had replaced traditional textbooks with iPads—leased to students for $200 per year as part of the tuition, currently $11,500, and subject to inspection at any time—and teacher-developed virtual textbooks. Thus, apart from the variability of Internet access and adult supervision at home, access to technology was not a significant obstacle as the schools shifted to remote learning. They could focus their attention on developing interactive teaching and learning. (St. Martin de Porres elementary school was not part of the iPad program; its students used family equipment to access daily assignments and lessons.)
The original motivation for replacing textbooks was that iPads provided flexibility that the network felt could enhance student learning. Previously, classroom materials consisted typically of traditional textbooks and teacher-photocopied source material. With iPads, homework, notes, and assigned texts could all be stored in one place, and class material could be updated in real time to reflect world events or changes in emphasis. As the schools moved to the use of iPads, teachers and department heads were tasked with developing their own digital texts to replace the older textbooks. At the end of each year, academic departments review the course content and make any adjustments deemed necessary. The course material is generally consistent across the schools within a subject in a grade, with some variation to accommodate Kellenberg’s tiered organization of students into Honors, Academic I, and Academic II.
By the 2019-20 school year, staff at Kellenberg and the Latin school had become particularly well-versed in the use of iPads. Schoology, a product of Power Schools, has been the learning platform for the past year. Before Covid-19, the schools hadn’t made use of Schoology’s video-conferencing feature, but as closures loomed, the schools’ IT team, working with the vendor, began planning for video conferencing. Teachers were trained in its use just before the schools went remote.
With the onset of the public-health crisis, Kellenberg installed a modified class schedule, using the Schoology platform. Nine periods were offered daily, four days per week; classes in Religion, English, History, Science, Math, and Language Study met every day, with teachers giving live instruction. In the early stages of remote learning, concerns arose about all the time students were spending on their iPads—up to nine hours a day between class and homework. The schools then made adjustments to allow for the use of some of the class time for homework, once lessons were completed, easing some of the time pressure.
The students’ iPad cameras are off, and their microphones are muted. If they wish to ask a question, they can indicate this electronically, and the teacher will call on them. Teachers’ presentations are no more than 20 minutes, with the rest of the class devoted to questions and answers. The remote instruction tries to match the material that the physical class would cover during the third trimester, and review for the year-end assessment in each subject.
Implementation of the new remote-learning system went well, says Brother Kenneth Hoagland, the principal of Kellenberg, the Latin school, and St. Martin. An early decision to upgrade the contract with Schoology to provide additional services turned out to be prescient. With the nationwide school shutdown, Kellenberg teachers and administrators were assured of the highest level of access and support as demand for the platform surged. The school monitors attendance and homework submission. As was the normal practice, final grades are based on a combination of the trimester grades and the final project.
Kellenberg’s routine assessment program served the school well during this disruption. Its policy assures that students don’t move on to the next grade without passing all their courses—resulting in modest attrition between ninth and twelfth grades. Students who fail one or two classes must pass them after summer remediation, or they cannot enroll in September. Any student with three or more course failures at the end of June is also not eligible to return in September. The most recent data from the New York State Education Department for the class of 2019 indicates that the twelfth-grade class was 10 percent smaller than the ninth-grade class four years earlier. Most of the attrition occurred between grades nine and eleven, and probably not all was due to course failure. Almost all of Kellenberg and Chaminade graduates enroll in college, with a select group attending Ivy League schools and many going to Catholic universities; state universities in New York and elsewhere are also popular choices.
It’s in the DNA of these schools to treat all activities as part of the student’s learning experience. All good schools place academics at the core of their mission—but Catholic schools also place faith at their core. As described in the local diocesan newspaper, the Long Island Catholic, faith remains essential to the Marianist schools’ remote work: “As always, each class begins with a prayer, students pray the Angelus at noon, and all ninth period classes are concluded with the traditional Marianist 3:00 Prayer. Additionally, every day a Kellenberg faculty or staff member leads the school in a recitation of the rosary.”
The Marianist schools have a strong community component, with a variety of teams, clubs, and activities centered on athletics, faith formation, fine arts, and other endeavors. On a recent visit to Kellenberg, shortly before the pandemic, I was struck by the large number of students ending their extracurriculars and congregating in the lobby around 5 p.m. They were likely waiting for their late bus, or for parents to retrieve them, as I did many times when my daughters were students at Kellenberg in the 2000s. In keeping with the Marianist vision, the schools understand the link between students’ academic development and their access to activities that build community and faith. Thus, on Wednesdays, the schedule is dedicated to activities, not classwork; video meetings are held throughout the day for religious, art, performance, and sports groups and clubs. All this reflects Kellenberg’s motto, “One Heart and One Mind.”
That the Marianists have been able to accommodate the challenges of the pandemic and maintain such robust offerings has not been lost on the families they serve. On the morning of the return to remote learning after Easter break, Brother Kenneth found “a beautiful chalk greeting thanking Kellenberg . . . displayed on the sidewalk” and a “Thank You” poster taped to the door. He also reports that parents and students conducted a “Fly-by,” with hundreds of cars parading through the driveway showing “Kellenberg Spirit and Gratitude!” That parade took place while the students and parents were dropping off more than 30 boxes of food that the brothers and other staff would bring to Catholic Charities for distribution to needy senior citizens. An alumna of the school was so moved by the school’s charitable effort that she donated half of her government-issued Covid-19 stimulus check to help.
In another sign of support, families continue to pay tuition at a high rate. In the elementary school, St. Martin de Porres, lay headmaster John Holian says that the relationships forged with families have been holding the school together. In addition to participation in remote learning, parents have been coming to the school to register their children for next year.
Brother Kenneth reports that participation in remote learning has been high—even higher than attendance in normal times—and that student cooperation and engagement are impressive. He credits this, too, to the strong bonds that the schools have built with the students and families over the years. As students travel to the schools from dozens of individual districts, their friendships tend to transcend geographical boundaries and are forged on deeper connections. Teachers have gone out of their way to connect with students, with what Brother Kenneth describes as “the right chemistry.” And it all flows from the mission of these schools.
That mission is articulated clearly in the formal statement on the Kellenberg website:
The Mission of Kellenberg Memorial is to support our students as they journey in their Catholic faith and help them develop both the insight and the resources to build the community around them by living the Gospel of Jesus Christ in their everyday lives.
Kellenberg Memorial instills a love of learning while challenging the students academically. The Academic goal is to cultivate critical thinking skills, analytical skills, and intellectual curiosity using a time tested liberal arts curriculum.
Kellenberg Memorial promotes community both inside and outside of the classroom. That community is deeply rooted in serving the needs of others. The commitment to serve is symbolic of our Blessed Mother, Mary whose service to the Church opens up our relationship to Jesus Christ, her son.
The Marianists describe the education provided in their schools as “essentially relational,” applying the “use of technology as an educational tool to enhance the traditional Socratic Method which is both historically stimulating and focused.” They believe that this approach allows as many students as possible to be involved in classroom instruction. Class sizes at Kellenberg and the Latin school tend to be higher than those in Long Island public schools, so encouraging participation of all students is critical. Assessment and feedback are also a major part of the culture, as shown by the continued assignment of traditional grades during remote learning.
A school rooted in its mission—with traditions and practices that regularly remind students, parents, and teachers of it—may well be better equipped than other, less-focused schools to respond quickly and effectively to a sudden emergency, like the coronavirus pandemic.
At the end of last year, the local bishop, John Barres, asked the Meribah Marianists to co-lead a diocese-wide review of Catholic elementary schools, along with noted consulting firm Alvarez & Marsal. As the Marianist schools had maintained and even grown their attendance in recent years, elementary schools in the rest of the diocese were continuing to see steep enrollment declines and school closures—and the bishop noticed the contrast. Calling the joint effort the “Morning Star Initiative,” Barres hoped to harness the Marianists’ talents to revitalize education across the diocese.
The Morning Star Initiative immediately established the pillars of the renewal project. Bishop Barres describes them as follows: “A robustly Catholic culture centered on the spiritual, intellectual, sacramental, moral and liturgical life of the Church; safe and supportive communities recognizing the dignity and potential of everyone; academic excellence built on a Catholic faith-based model of individual growth and development; and that we are here to stay to meet the changing needs of the community, and to ensure sufficient resources for an improved educational environment and the financial stability of the schools.”
Unfortunately, the Morning Star Initiative team was visiting and evaluating every elementary school in the diocese when the shutdowns began. Given the economic impact of the Covid-19 crisis, those schools will struggle even harder to maintain enrollment numbers, unless the state’s leaders experience a rapid change of heart and consider public support for these institutions in the form of vouchers or tuition tax credits. Meantime, one thing remains clear: the mission of the brothers and priests of Meribah remains critical, and it has proved its value amid crisis once again. After the virus subsides, that mission just might have the power to revitalize Catholic education in Long Island—and in the rest of the country, too.
Photos courtesy of Kellenberg Memorial High School