When you walk through St. Louis Catholic Academy, you might mistake Meke Smith for a father of one of the students.
He knows each one of them by name, the exams they have coming up and the clubs they participate in.
He talks about the achievements and accomplishments of his students with pride. He knows their personalities: who is the class clown or the social butterfly. But he isn’t their father; he’s their principal.
Although he’s friendly with the students, Smith’s goal isn’t to be their friend. His goal, and that of the rest of the faculty and staff, is to put the students in a position where they can be in a relationship with Christ and to help them achieve success academically.
Instilling these values onto 165 pre-K through eighth-graders (less than half of whom are Catholic) might seem like an impossible task, but Principal Smith makes it sound easy.
“We have to make sure that everybody who’s here, from the person who sweeps the floors to the person who runs the building, understands that we all teach two things no matter our subject, no matter our responsibilities: We all teach language arts because children need to learn how to speak, and we all teach religion because children need to have faith.”
Smith stressed that while the school seeks to develop the total person, religion serves as the basis for everything they do, whether it’s Spanish class, core religion courses, after-school violin lessons, athletics, choir or astronomy club.
Smith also doesn’t let the children’s demographics dissuade him. Seventy to 75 percent of the students at St. Louis Catholic Academy qualify for free and reduced lunch, a rough estimate of poverty according to the government, and most of the children come from single-parent homes. Roughly a quarter of the students have a primary caregiver that isn’t their mom or dad.
While Smith noted that these are challenging circumstances, he explained that he and the rest of the faculty and staff hold the students to the same, or higher, standards as they would students from any other background.
“We will give them the support they need because of the difficulties of their background, but they are not allowed to use their background as an excuse for not performing, and we, as an institution, are not allowed to use their background as an excuse for not performing,” Principal Smith said.
Smith also credits the faculty and staff’s expectations of the students for their success.
“We have dozens upon dozens of success stories … where this school has been a transformative influence in their lives, and not just their lives, but their families’ lives,” he said.
And while Smith and the faculty are completely invested in the students, they realize that they are only part of the equation because student success also depends on the parents’ investment in the child’s education.
“We do everything we can to bring our parents into the fold,” Smith said. “No school that’s successful can have parents that simply push their children through the door.”
This is why St. Louis Catholic Academy has an employee who works full time on parent communication and integration.
Emily Bland is the parent liaison for St. Louis Catholic Academy, one of the few schools that has such a position. Like Smith, Bland stressed the importance of working alongside parents. She said she views her job as a partnership, not as a service provider.
“We’re in this together; it’s not just me educating [their] child. We all need to work together,” Bland said.
She said that while a lot of parents have the best intentions, they just don’t realize the resources that are available to them and their children. For instance, if a parent realizes their child needs tutoring, but thinks that an expensive private tutor is the only option, she can point them toward less costly choices, such as volunteer tutors that come to the school.
Bland also arranges events for the parents, such as the parent appreciation night last fall, which included dinner and a DJ.
Other assistance the school offers includes its Family Resource Center, complete with computers and printers for parents who don’t have one at home. The center also serves as a library with books about parenting, adult fiction and other books parents can check out to read with their children. The school has an automated call system to make it easier for parents to keep up with their children.
While St. Louis Catholic Academy has a lot to offer, it relies on fundraisers,
private donations and financial assistance from organizations such as the Today and Tomorrow Educational Foundation (TTEF) to maintain its resources. A substantial portion of the school’s budget comes from TTEF, which helps private and faith-based schools in the St. Louis area generate financial assistance for economically disadvantaged students. Smith also credited Father Jeff Vomund for his work in establishing fundraisers to raise money for scholarship assistance.
According to Principal Smith, about 60 percent of the families from St. Louis Catholic Academy receive some sort of financial assistance. Smith also said that most of the money the school receives that is nonrestricted goes toward tuition assistance for the families. Without financial help from organizations such as TTEF, many of the children at St. Louis Catholic Academy might not be able to afford the opportunity to attend the school. Instead, they might have to look at less expensive options, including public schools such as those in the unaccredited district of the City of St. Louis.
This is why the MCC supports legislation that will assist families in failing districts who want to send their children to schools such as St. Louis Catholic Academy.
Melissa Varner is the communications director for the Missouri Catholic Conference.