“Umm...what are we celebrating, Miss Ogden?”
The voice came through Kathy Ogden’s computer speakers, barely audible over the uplifting beats of “Celebration” by Kool & The Gang.
“We just finished our first full day of virtual learning!” was Kathy’s energetic answer.
It was just before Thanksgiving when Covid protocols put Kathy’s fifth-grade students at St. Philip Neri Catholic School, a Notre Dame ACE Academy in Indianapolis, into virtual instruction. St. Philip Neri began the school year in a hybrid model and had briefly transitioned to in-person instruction before making the decision to go virtual.
“Many teachers recognize that virtual learning is difficult for students,” said Kathy, an ACE 26 AmeriCorps Teaching Fellow, “so celebrating the little things and bringing the joy for my students has been really important.”
“We talk about ‘bringing the joy’ a lot,” said Kari Buchinger, the principal at St. Philip Neri and a graduate of the Mary Ann Remick Leadership Program. “Our teachers bring it everyday, and that gives me so much joy to see all of the great work everyone is doing to support students—not only academically, but spiritually and socially as well.”
During a school year filled with uncertainty and shifts from hybrid to in-person to virtual learning, the teachers and staff at St. Philip Neri have been committed to bringing joy each day as they pursue their students’ academic goals.
“The growth of our students and the sheer willpower of the teachers to make student learning as impactful and joyful as possible—no matter what model of learning we’re in—has been incredible to see,” said Kari.
Although there have been shifts in the learning models this year, Kari and the St. Philip Neri faculty have been able to navigate those shifts in large part to the planning that took place in the summer.
“One of the first things we did was bring together a team of teachers,” Kari said. “Everyone was so generous with their time, and we immediately started thinking through each of the possibilities we might have to face. No matter what we had to do, we were going to be ready, and it is a testament to the hard work our teachers put in over the summer.”
Kathy shared a teacher’s perspective, saying, “We brought forward our suggestions, concerns, and needs, so that when the time came to make a decision we knew exactly what we were going to do. Kari has been such a great leader in an uncertain time, and she did a wonderful job of allowing us to have a voice in the decision-making process.”
Kathy and her colleagues not only worked hard in the summer to plan out what each mode of instruction could look like, they also adapted lesson plans and looked for other ways to bring new and joyous experiences to their students, such as welcoming class speakers to join them on Zoom calls. The list of guests included a senior on Notre Dame’s swim team (thanks to the ACE Classroom Connections initiative) who conducted a read aloud and answered questions about studying abroad and her childhood in Korea, as well as a veteran for Veteran’s Day and Kathy’s cousin, who is currently in medical school in Maryland.
But after nearly two months of virtual instruction, Kari, Kathy, and the St. Philip Neri team welcomed students back into the building on January 19th.
“We are so excited, and there is so much joy around the building because our students are back with us,” Kari said. “Now it’s our goal to remain fully in person for as long as we possibly safely can, and we will continue to shift and add various supports—whether for student learning or student safety—along the way.”
In addition to input from the teachers, St. Philip Neri has also relied on support from their school families to make this school year possible.
“Some families were nervous at the thought of us coming back into the building, but right now we have 100 percent of our students in person with us,” Kari said. “Our relationship with families and our ability to hear their concerns—and then respond to them—has helped our school grow even stronger and be successful during this time.”
When asked about her outlook on the rest of the year, and if Catholic schools will continue to find ways to provide a high-quality educational experience for their students and families, Kari was quick to respond.
“I think Catholic schools are unstoppable,” said Kari. “We are going to find a way to do what’s best for our students. That is true of every person who works in this building—and in so many schools across the country—and of every parent who entrusts their children to our care.”