Students thrive on structure, faith (video)

Carolina Astrain By Carolina Astrain

Oct. 28, 2013 at 5:28 a.m.

Ariana Junor leads the discussion in her breakout group on theology at St. Joseph High School.

Ariana Junor leads the discussion in her breakout group on theology at St. Joseph High School.

Ariana Junor lifted her hands in the air while mouthing the words to the Lord's Prayer next to her St. Joseph High School classmates.

Other students around her either joined in or stood silently during the Catholic school's weekly Mass.

Even though she isn't Catholic, she enjoys participating in parts of the campuswide Mass, said Ariana.

"It helps me on my faith-seeking journey," Ariana, 14, said. "I'm glad my parents decided to send me here because it's a good school."

Ariana is one of 314 students who attend St. Joseph High School.

St. Joseph invited students from public schools to tour its campus Monday as part of its annual Shadow Days.

The next Shadow Day is Nov. 11.

The days are designed to give potential students a glimpse of what it is like to attend the private school.

A year at St. Joseph costs families up to $9,100 this year, up from last year's $8,750. Last year, the school gave students $440,000 in assistance.

Last year, 37 percent of the student body were students of other faiths.

Channel One News played before the start of senior Olivia Creager's honors Physics class, taught by Science Department Chairwoman Sabra Sauer.

Next to the open door hung a portrait of Jesus Christ - something you wouldn't normally see at a public school.

Once the newscast ended, Sauer welcomed her students with a reading from Galatians 6:7-10: "Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow."

"I begin each class with scripture so that we can focus for a moment on our Christian faith and learn from the scriptures," Sauer said.

Some, but not all, teachers at St. Joseph like to start their classes with scripture, said Olivia, 17.

The mandatory weekly Mass and spots of scripture come as a convenience and a comfort, said Olivia, a practicing Catholic.

"It's allowed me to grow more in my faith," Olivia said. "We don't seclude one faith from the other; we want all of our faiths to grow together."

After introductions, Sauer led her students down the hall for the laboratory portion of the class.

The students were learning about weight and mass unit conversions.

A miniature Texas A&M University helmet rested on the scale.

"A&M is one of the most popular colleges at our school," Olivia said.

St. Joseph principal Bill McArdle said 28 percent of St. Joseph students are accepted at either Texas A&M or the University of Texas-Austin.

"The profile of our school is one universities appreciate," McArdle said. "They have good grades, high SAT scores and community service hours coming in."

Based on a five-year average, 85.6 percent of St. Joseph students taking Advanced Placement courses were eligible to receive college credit, compared to 50.6 percent statewide and 60.6 percent globally, according to an information sheet included in the Shadow Days student packet.

After the bell rang, Olivia rushed to her locker, searching for the books she needed for her next class - AP-English taught by English Department Chairwoman Gretchen Boyle.

"You can get a tardy in some classes if you forget your book," Olivia said.

Boyle did not begin the class with a scripture but instead reminded students to turn in their money for their graduation announcements.

The students then pulled out their copies of "Hamlet" and read silently along as a vinyl record provided narration.

Once second period ended, the students gathered in the courtyard for a 15-minute break before third period.

Ariana, a freshman, walked through the courtyard on her way to Algebra I-Honors shortly after the break bell rang.

Sylvia Martin, Ariana's Algebra teacher, stood outside her classroom greeting her students.

Martin began class by going over the homework answers and later went over the Laws of Exponents.

With about 10 minutes left before the end of class, Martin allowed students time to start on their next assignment.

A statue of the Virgin Mary looked out at the students as they completed their work.

"The homework load was probably the hardest thing, but by the second month, I got used to the homework load," said Ariana, who began as a freshman this year. "... On busy nights, I'll skip tennis and spend the whole afternoon studying."

After third period, students walked outdoors toward the campus gymnasium for the mandatory Mass service.

On Mass days, students often wear formal attire and aren't allowed to chew gum during the service, Ariana said.

The Rev. Daniel Houde, pastor of Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic Church, celebrated the service.

A student gave the first reading.

A nun dressed in her habit strummed a guitar and sang along with other members of the campus church band.

And all students, except the non-Catholics, were invited to take communion.

"We can go up for a blessing, but I normally just sit down, " Ariana said.

After Mass, students from a leadership group put on a skit about recycling, warning students about the dangers of improperly disposing their plastic bottles.

Freshman Brandyn Seals, 14, stepped down from the bleachers and made his way to Theology I taught by Michael Shimek.

Shimek began class with a prayer.

"I know we just got done praying, but let's pray again," Shimek said.

A cross made of sea shells hung on the wall.

The theology instructor covered the subject of morality through decision-making examples taken from controversial topics including abortion, embryonic stem cell research and the death penalty.

"My point is that all life is sacred," Shimek said. "Even though the decisions we make may be difficult ones ... it is important to know that all life is sacred from conception to death."

Theology is one of his more interesting courses, said Brandyn, a practicing Catholic.

He hopes to unravel some unanswered faith-related questions during his time at St. Joseph, said the junior varsity football player.

"I want to learn about why Jesus came to save us," Brandyn said. "I'm still trying to understand why he came."

The structured atmosphere keeps teachers and students at the school.

The teacher turnover rate is relatively low with an average of two new instructors each year.

The student attrition rate over a four-year period is between 5 to 8 percent, said McArdle.

"Some of that is because families moving out of town or students who have found the academics more of a challenge than they anticipated at the end of their freshman year," McArdle said.

Teachers at St. Joseph are paid about $8,000 less than the $50,000 a Victoria school district teacher earns on average, McArdle said.

"We're blessed with teachers that look at this as a vocation," McArdle said.

The average class size at St. Joseph is 19.1 students.

"We will have as many as 30 students in one class. That's the highest we'll go," McArdle said. "We have one class with six."

With the small class size comes rules.

Cellphones are allowed on campus but not for use during the school day.

After six tardies, which can be issued for different disciplinary reasons, a student must complete four hours of Saturday school.

The strict disciplinary structure is one of the reasons why so few students act out at school, Ariana said.

"Our sense is that we're preparing them for life," McArdle said. "... Education doesn't take place in the absence of discipline."



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