By Becky Koppenhaver
When asked to describe St. Teresa of Avila School in Silver Lake, Principal Christina Fernandez-Caso uses many of the descriptive phrases and words that tend to attract progressive parents: education of the whole child, active life-long learners, universally aware citizens, confident communicators, learning respect for themselves, respect for others, and respect for the environment.
Fernandez-Caso admits this may not be in line with the pre-conceived, outdated notions that some parents may hold about Catholic school. She also thinks that many parents in the area may be surprised to learn what St. Teresa of Avila, located off Glendale Boulevard near the 2 Freeway, has to offer, even those parents who would normally never consider sending their child to a Catholic school.
“Rigid” that’s the word that comes to mind when many think about Catholic school. “That was the way it was early-on,” says Fernandez-Caso, who oversees a campus with about 200 students in grades K-8. Yes, everyone has heard about nuns that used to slap kids hands with rulers. But the Catholic school of late now takes a more PC and progressive approach to education, says Fernandez-Caso. She describes it this way: “Learn it, live it, and respect the rest of the world.”
She says that today’s Catholic schools no longer teach students that Catholicism is the one true way. “Students learn to respect all religions. We have many non- Catholic students including Buddhists, Baptists, and Jehovah’s Witnesses.”
But make no mistake, Fernandez-Caso says, St. Teresa’s is a Catholic school where the mainly Latino and Filipino students study the Catholic religion, observe Christian holidays, and partake in the rituals of holy communion and confirmation, but only if they are of the Catholic faith. ‘We don’t convert students, that is not our goal,” she says.
Fernando-Caso believes that teaching religion can serve a broader purpose even to those who are of other faiths. The study of other religions and faiths is incorporated into seventh and eighth grade social studies curriculum. “We study the Catholic religion in a historical sense, we use it to teach character development, in terms of how students can integrate what they learn into their own lives.”
Fernandez-Caso says that what brings many students to St. Teresa is their parents’ desire to have their children “super-prepared academically” for high-school and beyond. Many Catholic schools have maintained that reputation, said Fernadez-Caso, who points out that St. Teresa has put technology at the for-front of all learning. The whole school is wired for the Internet and students are taught computer skills from an early age and are expected to use laptops for presentations and assignments.
“Students always know what is expected of them, but we also know that all kids are different in how they learn.” She says the school has recently implemented new classroom procedures that allow students and teachers to remain together for three consecutive years, giving teachers a chance to learn students strengths and areas where they need help. It also gives students a chance to develop stronger relationships with teachers.
Although none of the dedicated St. Teresa teachers are Catholic nuns or brothers (she says that Catholic nuns are in short supply, with the average age of a nun is 65 years old) they are all educated, trained, and experienced Catholic teachers and aides.
According to Fernandez-Caso, what makes the little school of St. Teresa of Avila so appealing to the its K-8th graders and their families is the overwhelming sense that everyone is one big family. “We emphasize the importance of family above all else. We have a family-nurturing environment, and kids feel loved and safe by extension. Everyone one watches out for each other. We all know each other’s names, and the older kids learn to take care of the younger ones.”
Parent participation is encouraged and expected from all families, whether it’s fundraising, working in the school gardens, helping in the classroom or maintaining the tidy campus, which is located across the street from the belltower of the St.Teresa de Avila church.
What most people don’t realize is that St. Teresa’s is an affordable private school option in a city where most private school tuitions can run between $10,000-$20,000 a year, said Fernandez-Castro. Tuition for one child at St. Teresa’s is less than $4,000 a year. That’s bargain, Fernandez-Caso says, considering everything the school has to offer.
Photos courtesy St. Teresa of Avila School
Becky Koppenhaver is a freelance writer covering schools. You can send Becky story tips and ideas at becky@theEastsiderLA.com