St. Mary’s Keeps Students Close with Addition of 7th Grade

| February 4, 2014
Andy Ryan enjoys the newly established 7th grade at St. Mary’s School, Cortland.

Andy Ryan enjoys the newly established 7th grade at St. Mary’s School, Cortland.

BY CLAUDIA MATHIS

Andy Ryan has been saved by the bell. The school bell, that is. On September 4, 2013, the first day of school, St. Mary’s School in Cortland opened its doors to its first 7th grade class in over 30 years. Andy was one of 13 seventh graders who entered this fall. Andy thought that he would probably have to attend 7th grade at a public school until he heard last year that the new 7th grade would be put in place at St. Mary’s this September.

“My parents left the decision up to me,” said Andy, who entered St. Mary’s as a 5th grader from a public school. “I never wanted to leave St. Mary’s. I knew it would never be the same without my friends if I went to a public school.” Denise Hall, principal at St. Mary’s, said parents have wanted a junior high for a long time. In the past, students had to travel to Binghamton or Syracuse to continue their Catholic education after 6th grade.

“Many parents are not ready to let go of the small setting where everyone knows and cares for their child,” said Hall. “They have expres­sed that 7th and 8th grade are very formative years, and they want their children in St. Mary’s.

“Two parents have recently stated that it was the best decision that they ever made. The students are comfortable. They already know each other, and they are ready to take risks. This maximizes their potential for the year.”—DENISE HALL

“We had a committee in the early to mid-‘90s look at the feasibility and the conditions were just not right,” Hall said. “Representatives of that old committee and new members approached me and we had many discussions. The bottom line is the school’s finances were looking good, and we had the classrooms to accommodate the students. With increasing enrollment, financial security and recent upgrades to technology and programs, I felt like now was the time. We talked with our pastor at the time, and he supported the idea.”

Hall is very pleased with the implementation of the 7th grade this year. “I have heard positive comments from teachers, parents and students,” she said. “Two parents have recently stated that it was the best decision that they ever made. The students are comfortable. They already know each other and they are ready to take risks. This maximizes their potential for the year.”

The 7th graders’ school day is very different from what they were accustomed to in the elementary grades. The junior high students move freely throughout the school between classes, with their iPads marking the beginning and end of the class periods. A total of 13 teachers instruct the young teens in the subjects of English language arts, home and careers, math, social studies, science, French, Spanish, physical education, art and music. They also belong to clubs and engage in sports that are only available to 7th graders. In addition, the 7th grade students also have a “lounge” they can call their own. The room was designed by parents and students and is used for their study halls and sometimes religion classes.

“We have been blessed with some of the most professional, talented and dedicated staff,” commented Hall. “If you ask any of the students why they love SMS, they will tell you that the teachers make learning fun!”

Hall said that St. Mary’s educational program meets all of the New York State program requirements for 7th grade. The school prepares the 7th graders for a public high school environment by offering classes that prepare them for a New York State Regents diploma, classes in French or Spanish and advanced classes in math. The students also have the opportunity to take band, orchestra or general music to fulfill their music requirement.

Andy said that so far, his time as a 7th grader has been very enjoyable. “It’s been a great experience,” he said. “I like being in a smaller classroom. It’s lots of fun, and everyone holds the door for you. It’s really welcoming, and my classmates are friendly.”

His parents are happy with his decision to attend St. Mary’s. “My grandparents are too,” added Andy. “Especially my grandpa — he went to St. Mary’s all the way through high school.”

Hall has witnessed the way the 7th graders have matured this year. “These students have gone from elementary students to confident, responsible, faith-filled young adults,” she said, noting that plans are in the works to add an 8th grade next fall. “We are able to see their spiritual growth in action. Our 7th graders have reached that maturity and feel so comfortable with themselves that they are really serving as a light to others! John Baptist de La Salle, the patron saint of teachers, is quoted for saying, ‘To touch the hearts of your pupils and to inspire them with the Christian spirit is the greatest miracle you can perform.’ It is true for us at St. Mary’s, and it is why most of us are here. The students feel it, the parents feel it, and the staff feels it. It is wonderful to get another couple of years to inspire and to be inspired. I do find the 7th graders inspiring and am so grateful for their presence.” n

Claudia Mathis is a staff writer for The Catholic Sun.

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