As the academic year gets underway, school communities have faced unexpected changes due to the COVID-19 pandemic that have challenged the way they educate their students. St. Theresa School in Trumbull, however, embraced not one but two significant changes this fall as it welcomed both a new principal and a new model of education.
Pamela Fallon, former director of education at St. Joseph Academy in Brookfield, replaced Salvatore Vittoria as principal in August, bringing with her a love for Catholic education and an excitement for this long-established school. While at St. Joseph, Fallon oversaw the day-to-day functions of the academy and implemented curriculum, all which prepared her well for a smooth transition to St. Theresa.
“My faith has called me to learn and to serve,” said Fallon, also a former teacher and assistant principal. “I teach with the lens of my Catholic faith and always want to share the ‘good news.’”
Fallon’s arrival at St. Theresa coincided with the school’s shift to a Catholic liberal model of education, a philosophy that places Jesus at the center of all learning, affecting not only what is taught but how. Such a model engages children in a love of knowledge and, like a traditional education, encourages them to discover the fundamentals of history, science, math, and English composition and grammar but on a deeper level for a stronger relationship with God. According to Father Brian Gannon, pastor of St. Theresa Church, this is achieved by recognizing that God is the purpose for everything we do.
“He is the order in biology, the magnificence in geography, the beauty in poetry,” said Father Gannon. “We are renovating educational opportunities for kids based on the strengths of our current structure and giving them the tools to integrate the body and the soul.”
“A child’s mind is so sharp,” he continued, “and we want to fill it with truth, beauty and goodness.” These building blocks of knowledge, said Father Gannon, are also the foundation of this classical model of education.
For Fallon, part of the draw of St. Theresa was this new philosophy. “I believe in this classical model. It integrates so much of what I stand for—connecting curricular areas as a coherent whole. There is a tremendous difference in this versus a traditional curriculum,” she said.
To assist St. Theresa in making this three-year transition, a curriculum director was hired to help guide the building of the curriculum and instructional practice and to provide ongoing support for teacher and families. In addition, the administration sought the expertise of Colleen Richards, director of school services at the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education, who spent two days in August at the Trumbull school leading professional learning workshops for teachers and staff. Equating this model to the telling of a great story, Richards commented that students respond so well because they are engaged by history.
“We are restoring history—ancient, medieval, American and modern times,” she said. “We are renewing the mission in the church’s own tradition. Kids are happy because they study meaning and purpose, and that’s what feeds their souls.”
When first and second graders study ancient Greece and Rome, they have a greater understanding of the founding of American democracy in grade five. When third graders embark on a guided pilgrimage around the school through a modern day Canterbury Tales, they are learning social studies and religion in an integrated way.
“This whole self-engagement through the lens of faith further engages the story,” said Fallon, adding that new lesson plans, resources and tools recommended by Richards will be implemented in this inaugural year.
As the transition moves forward even in the midst of a pandemic, safety precautions remain in place at St. Theresa School, with masks, disinfectants, cohort groups and a remote learning academy for children who choose to study at home. Fallon believes, however, that even some of these measures will enhance the classical model. With “specials” such as music and art now occurring within the students’ homeroom classes, teachers can better incorporate them into the core curriculum. “It’s a benefit,” she said, “and everyone is on board.”
With a new principal and a new model of education complemented by the strong foundation of its Catholic faith, St. Theresa School has much “good news” to share.