OWATONNA — As St. Mary’s School celebrates Catholic Schools Week, it can also rejoice in knowing it’s been accredited by the Minnesota Non-Public Schools Accrediting Association (MNSAA) through 2024.
Every six years, St. Mary’s does a self-study report, and then in the seventh year, a team from MNSAA spends days at the school evaluating strengths and weaknesses, said Kathleen Segna, St. Mary’s principal. The team examines how well St. Mary’s is fulfilling requisite standards, which, Segna added, “helps us learn and grow.”
At the end of each school year, St. Mary’s files a report with the organization stating “what we’ve done, and we use our current strategic plan to guide us to be our best,” she said. The accrediting group, which spent 2.5 days at St. Mary’s in November, is “like a check and balance.”
Standards for accreditation include mission philosophy, teaching and learning, climate for learning, communication and community relations, personnel, leadership, administration, governance and envisioning for the future through a strategic plan. The visiting squad of eight was comprised of six Catholic schools principals and two teachers, some from the Diocese of Winona and some from the Archdiocese in Minneapolis.
Marsha Stenzel, superintendent of Catholic schools for the Winona Diocese, also visited St. Mary’s to evaluate “standards of Catholic identity,” and she pronounced St. Mary’s “definitely a Catholic school,” Segna said.
“We want to walk our talk,” she said.
In order to fulfill the promise of Catholic schools to proclaim the Gospel, build community and serve brothers and sisters, the Diocese of Winona assesses Catholic Identity for each Catholic school during the MNSAA visit, Stenzel explained. The benchmarks and standards for Catholic Identity include mission and philosophy, informative development of faith, formative development of faith, transformative faith community, governance and policy, leadership, faculty, staff and a school strategic plan.
Saint Mary’s “provides faith-filled academic excellence, Catholic values and a supportive environment,” Stenzel said. The assessment confirmed St. Mary’s offers “rigorous curriculum, students who are self-disciplined, committed parents, a caring community and Christ as the model for students to recognize His presence in themselves and others in a safe, supportive environment.”
Helping children mature into Christ-like people through living their Catholic faith is one of St. Mary’s top functions, Stenzel added. It’s “a place to encounter Jesus Christ and reveal His transforming love and truth.”
The visitors affirmed some areas in which St. Mary’s already felt confident, like having broad community support and developing character in students, and noted areas where St. Mary’s could improve, such as having detailed job descriptions for all employees.
St. Mary’s should also make sure more than one person knows how to do a job in case of an unexpected problem, Segna said. For example, if an administrative assistant suddenly had to leave her duties for months, could someone else fill in ably?
In addition, St. Mary’s teaches state standards, but they’ve also been working with the Winona Diocese on the ACE Collaborative, which comes through the University of Notre Dame, she said. Rolling out ACE is a multi-year process, and the school began with math and social studies, continuing now with science and planning language arts this summer.
“Minnesota standards are high, but we want our curriculum to be even more rigorous,” Segna said. ACE promises students “are learning what they are supposed to,” but it also guarantees that if a student transfers out of St. Mary’s, he or she will have the correct knowledge base to bring to his or her next school so “we’re all on the same page.”
Because the St. Mary’s community is so proud of the school, they want anyone to feel welcome, whether or not they are Catholic, which is why the school is decreasing tuition rates for non-parishioner students effective beginning with the 2017-2018 school year.
Currently, families who are not members of Owatonna’s two Catholic churches, Sacred Heart and St. Joseph, pay a premium.
That’s understandable, she said, as members of those churches give offerings that help support St. Mary’s. But as St. Mary’s looked at other Catholic schools in the area, they realized the tuition they charge non-members is higher than the norm.
“We wanted to bring that more in line,” said Segna.
While rates lower for successive students in the same family, tuition per month for non-parishioners is currently $154 higher than for parishioners, but that price will lower to $50 more per month next year with a discount for multi-students aligned accordingly to the discount for multi-students’ tuition for parishioners.
“It’s more fair and equitable,” she said.
This should also address the challenge of declining enrollment at St. Mary’s.
St. Mary’s is “willing to work with” any parents who feels the school’s tuition is not feasible but want their children to be educated by St. Mary’s, she said.
“We have a good school here, and we are very welcoming,” Segna said.
Nearly all the teachers have master’s degrees. They are “very dedicated to their profession,” and “we have awesome support staff, too,” she said. “We are a family here, an extension and a support to your immediate family.”
Younger students are able to work with — and learn from — older students, and vice versa, and service opportunities are bountiful, she said. Last year, for example, St. Mary’s students contributed more than 3,000 hours of service.
In addition to strong academics, class sizes remain small to maximize personalized attention, and “we have pretty good discipline through teaching our faith and morals,” she said. Furthermore, “we’re a one-stop-shop,” as students come to the same building from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade for “a seamless transition.”
St. Mary’s also teaches a significant number of students who are not Catholic, she said. “Our doors are open to students of all faiths.”
“I really like it because it brings diversity,” she said.