Catholic education about to go bilingual

New London - For the 119 years St. Mary Star of the Sea School has been around, it has reflected the community.

Generations of Italian, Irish, Polish and French Canadian parents sent their children to the brick building on Huntington Street. Gradually the heritage of the students changed, along with the city, to predominantly Latino and African American.

And the school has adapted.

In the fall, St. Mary will become the first Catholic school in the state to teach classes in English and Spanish. It will also open a community language lab for people to learn either Spanish or English.

"This is where the population is, and we have to tap into it and provide for those children and their parents,'' said Sister Barbara Gould, assistant superintendent of the Diocese of Norwich. "Otherwise we are going to lose a whole generation of students.''

A five-year Dual-Language Initiative, which will start with the kindergarten class in the fall, is being developed over the summer. Shannon Lougee, the kindergarten teacher, will teach the class with a bilingual aide.

"By the time students are in middle school, they will be bilingual and bi-literate,'' said school principal Anne Totora. "Our biggest strength is our cultural diversity. It is a huge benefit to receive instruction in two languages."

With the blessing of Bishop Michael R. Cote and the Rev. Robert Washabaugh, pastor at St. Mary, the school applied for and received a $20,000 grant from the Shea Foundation and is awaiting word on a request for $50,000 from the Sullivan Foundation.

Representatives of the school visited St. Procopius School in Chicago, which has had a bilingual program for 15 years, and Baltimore's Archbishop Borders School, which just completed its first year with dual-language. The group also visited Jennings Elementary School in New London and will visit the Regional Multicultural Magnet School, both of which offer dual-language programs.

"Latino students are the population of the future,'' said Gould. "We need to look at how we can meet their needs.''

St. Mary's, which at one time taught close to 250 students, has just over 100 students. The kindergarten through eighth-grade school is 60 percent Latino, 30 percent African American and 10 percent Caucasian. Roughly 30 percent of the students speak both English and Spanish. About 20 percent of the student population is non-Catholic.

Gould also hopes one day to open a community center at St. Mary's that would keep parents informed about their students but also address nutritional issues, budgets and help with job searches.

In the fall, St. Mary's will host a Rosetta Stone language lab for the community. Literacy Volunteers of Eastern Connecticut will provide lab monitors and tutors.

"It will be for people who want to improve skills in English or Spanish,'' Totora said. "Our goal is to have church families take advantage of the services.''

The school and Literacy Volunteers received an $8,000 grant from the Community Foundation for the program and the purchase of new equipment for the lab.

The Diocese is also hoping the two programs will help increase enrollment at the school.

Tuition is $2,600 for students whose families who are members of a Catholic parish, and $50 less for each sibling. Tuition for non- parishioners is $3,275 each and $50 less for each additional family member.

k.edgecomb@theday.com

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