‘It’s great to see this come together’

BROOKFIELD—“The most exciting thing about personalized and multi-age learning is that it encourages and empowers students to discover their strengths, challenges, interests and passion,” said Pam Fallon, director of education at St. Joseph Catholic Academy in Brookfield.

During a recent visit, Superintendent of Schools Dr. Steven Cheeseman and administrators brought along a special guest to see that passion in action. Tom McInerney and his wife Paula recently gave a $5.5 million gift to Foundations in Education. The gift is financing the diocesan Personalized Learning Initiative and St. Joseph Academy’s multi-age learning program. Tom is chair of Foundations in Education; this visit gave him the opportunity to see the SJCA experience in action.

The day began in the Early Learning Center with the youngest grades. In addition to pre-K for three- and four-year-olds, the academy is arranged in learning bands for grades K-2, 3-4 and 5-6, with seventh and eighth grades on their own tracks.

“The multi-age configuration allows students to learn and grow with a cushion of all their friends learning together,” said Fallon. “It takes away the competitive edge common in a traditional classroom and gives students more of a collaborative environment. It’s another way to help student’s grow not just academically but socially and emotionally in an accepting culture. It’s the best of all possible worlds.”

Fallon calls the bright, open, newly-renovated Early Learning Center “the room with the sparkles and happiness.” During this visit, children in the blended kindergarten through second grade were working on their Hour of Code. An introduction to computer science, the worldwide Hour of Code takes place each year during Computer Science Education Week, December 3-9 in 2018.

Because they are so young, these students completed their hour of code in two separate sessions. In the first, they learned how to build a night sky and set it with twinkling stars. This day, these youngest of computer coders were setting up their own computer landscape.

“I’m coloring my own background first,” said second grader Clare, working on a lush tropical beach scene. Seated next to her, kindergartner Aidan created a jungle and was working on the coding to make a monkey jump as he runs. After he had the scene finished to his liking, he could use another set of commands to add his own voice—and even his photo—to one of the animal characters.

The program they’re using is called Scratch Junior, developed from an MIT-based innovation. “It’s geared to their age, but once they understand the coding process and can design projects, they’ll be comfortable coding at a more complex level,” said Alan Barnicle, personalized learning coordinator for the diocesan schools.

In the fifth and sixth grade cluster, social studies students are working on a Museum for Mesopotamia. Each group of students will research background information on their topic on the computer, print out relevant information, and produce three typical artifacts. In one group, fifth-grader Chloe had researched and printed out an alphabet in cuneiform, the ancient Sumerian alphabet. Her two co-workers Tricia and Cameron, both sixth graders, are using the symbols and appropriate text to design Sumerian-style clay tablets.

Around the room, other groups are working on images of Assyrian gods and Babylonian jewelry, learning the history and culture of their assigned Mesopotamian societies as they do so.

“These are the kids who will grow up and manage our society,” said Tom McInerney. “Their energy gets you revved up. It fills you with hope.”

Among other projects in action at SJCA, eighth graders applied their digital media skills to the celebration of the Mass, learning the streaming software to produce the broadcast of the Mass each Tuesday morning at 8:45 am; a science class was preparing to build a deer from a collection of bones; an English Language Arts class worked on a production studio weather report, while students in another were in the final phase of designing a class ring on a 3-D printer.

“Learning doesn’t end when the last bell rings,” Fallon added with pride, listing after school activities as varied as a Chess Club, Walking Club, Odyssey of the Mind, Paleo Club and a Kindness Club—and sports enough to fill the trophy case in the front entry hall. There’s an activity for every age and interest.

“It’s exciting to see the enthusiasm of both the students and their teachers,” said Dr. Cheeseman at the end of his visit, praising the dedication of teachers who worked all summer developing lesson plans for the new classroom model. “It’s great to see this all come together.

“Our teachers didn’t really get a vacation this year; they spent the entire summer developing lesson plans,” said Fallon, echoing his admiration of the SJCA faculty. “As construction and painting was going on, the professional development was ongoing.”

The teachers’ dedication was so outstanding that Foundations in Education has announced that they are among its 2019 honorees. They will be recognized at the 4th annual Spring Gala on Thursday, April 11, 2019 at Woodway Country Club in Darien as innovative orchestrators of a paradigm shift in school structure.

“When you see this in action,” said Tom McInerney, “You feel like you haven’t done enough. These kids are going out into the world emotionally, spiritually and intellectually prepared.”

(For more information on St. Joseph Catholic Academy, visit their website: Private tours are available. To learn more about Foundations in Education, visit