Bridgeport Diocese to Transform Curriculum

In years past, butterflies might be taught to everyone at once in Melinda Gremse’s first grade class at Assumption Catholic School in Fairfield.

Now her 14 students rotate in groups of three and four through stations. While one group builds symmetrical butterflies out of colorful wood chips, another draws them. A third group puts on headphones and uses laptops to research metamorphosis while a fourth sits with the teacher to compare the development of Monarchs to frogs — the creatures tackled by the class the week before.

“It’s a great way to teach,” said Gremse, allowing students to move at their own pace. “It’s no longer one size fit all.”

Gremse has been teaching like this for awhile. In the fall, all other teachers at her school and five others in the Bridgeport Diocese will adopt as it as standard practice.

With the help of a $5 million grant from a private donor, the Diocese has launched what is calling a Personalized Learning Initiative. Support is also coming from Apple computers, Fairfield University, Christian Brothers/Catholic School Management, and Catapult Learning.

The new model will include some longer class periods, more technology and instruction geared toward individual students.

It is a three-year initiative that starts in September 2018 at Assumption, St. Gregory the Great in Danbury, Holy Trinity Catholic Academy in Shelton, the Upper School at the Catholic Academy of Stamford, Our Lady of Fatima in Wilton, and at St. Joseph Catholic Academy in Brookfield.

Bridgeport Catholic Schools will be in the second wave of schools to introduce the model.

“While many teachers in the diocese already personalize learning and differentiate instruction, this initiative gives them the tools to bring it to the next level,” Diocesan Schools Superintendent Steven F. Cheeseman said.

Students will spend a portion of each school day rotating through stations designed to teach a concept in different ways. There will be online resources to help teachers adapt to various student abilities. Often, teacher-led instruction will take a back seat to group discussions and assignments that require student collaboration to solve real problems.

Each school will also get an Innovation Lab designed to reinforce science, technology, religion, engineering, arts and math — or STREAM. The lab will include coding, robotics, 3D Printers and more.

Assumption Principal Steve Santoli said the idea is more about improving the product than necessarily attracting new students.

“It’s right for the kids we have,” said Santoli of his 175 students. “Catholic school always taught to middle. If you were in the middle you got a great education. Meanwhile kids who struggle, would continue to struggle. Advanced kids might be bored.”

With this model, which Santoli has seen work well in New York and Rhode Island, all students benefit.

His is one of 26 schools in the diocese which combined educates about 8500 students.

Cheeseman said the transformation will make Catholic schools look different. Instead of desks in rows there will be more tables and chances for collaboration.

“It will improve the work they do,” said Cheesman. “We always want to attract more students but the whole idea is do the best we can to educate the students in our classrooms.”

A letter about the change recently was sent home to parents and last week, 100 staff members from the six schools met at the diocese for a full day of training.

Teachers got to sample “station rotations” and hear from speakers like Greg Dhuyvetter, a former superintendent of the diocese of Orange, California and now a Catholic School Management consultant. He told participants that their job was no longer to provide information but teach students what to do with it.

Students will still be taught the basics but with more access to technology and more one on one time with their teacher.

“This is part of the fulfillment of our Catholic mission,” Cheesman said. “The real personalization happens between the teacher and the child. The technology is the tool to help the teacher do that.”

By Linda Conner Lambeck @