Thursday, October 30, 2008

Kennedy School

This year a new elementary school opened in St. Joseph. It is the one thing that breaks our otherwise unobstructed prairie views. The lights at night are like a little shopping center in the distance. It bothers Steve more than it has me. I figure development out there is inevitable. If anything, the school has a lot of land (75 acres) and so the development might be limited. I don't mind people building schools so much.

We rode out to see it on our bikes in September. There's a nice bike path, making a long loop past the few remaining farms south of downtown. Steve's chief complaint is that it more or less is a death knell for the Catholic school, the St. Joseph Church Lab School (K-6) (Steve did the illustration on their home page). The truth is, the lab school isn't exactly thriving. Old Kennedy Elementary, which was across the street from the Catholic School, monastery and college, had overflowed into several temporary buildings to handle overcrowding. The town itself is growing, and fewer parents are sending their children to Catholic school.

I was at the new school again last week for the St. Joseph Chamber of Commerce meeting. I went to represent the Sisters, meet the people who run the local newspaper, and I thought maybe meet some other businesspeople as well. The other people at Chamber, however, weren't that friendly. I asked people their names and where they worked, and they stuck to the basics, and didn't inquire of me in return. It also cost me $7.00 for a school lunch that consisted of "beef dippers," a dixie cup of shredded lettuce, a scoop of au gratin potatoes, and a slice of pumpkin bread.

Still, when we took our places at the shiny library table with our brand new navy blue trays in the sunny library, two men started talking to each other. One, the insurance guy, asked the other, a construction guy, if there had been an elementary school in St. Joseph before the old Kennedy was built in the 1960s.

"Nope," he answered.

"Just the Catholic school?"

"Just the lab school. All the kids in town went there."

"Huh?" I said. "Where did the public school kids go?"

"There weren't any public school kids."

"Do you mean they were bussed to St. Cloud or another school?"

"No, they were all Catholic. There weren't any busses. All the children who lived in St. Joseph went to the Catholic school."

"So did the federal government subsidize the Catholic school then?"

"No. Everyone was Catholic."

"That's not possible," I said. "I mean, the federal government had to provide some option for public school."

"No, there were no public school children in St. Joseph."

"That's not really possible," I said. I mean, that school wasn't built in the 1920s, when it might have been the case, but the 1960s.

"I lived here then. It is."

"So if you weren't Catholic, you should live somewhere else, huh?"

"People just knew it. It wasn't an issue."

I thought about following up with a statement about the federal government deciding not to educate the children of St. Joseph, MN, but decided not to bother. It did strike me as odd that I was there representing the largest provider of Catholic school teachers in this area for the last 150 years.

Anyway, at that point it was time for the principal to show us all the fancy new technology in the room. She talked about what a good deal they'd gotten on everything, since prices went down after the bonds passed. Since it was a matter of "use the money or lose it," they were able to get all sorts of smart technology for the classrooms. And implement all kinds of additional "green" initiatives in the school. In fact, you can read about it on their website, or watch the clip she showed us that appeared this fall on CNN Money. I think the frugal, unassuming, mostly German Catholic Minnesotans in the room were a little taken aback. It's all nice, they agreed, but a little embarrassing. It was also hard to take the talk she gave using the PowerPoint projector on why we need to vote on a levy for more money for schools. I got it, and it also began to answer my othe question. The school district is huge, and includes St. Cloud (so yes, students in St. Joseph could attend St. Cloud schools). We would be voting to improve education mostly for St. Cloud students-- which I'm all for. (In the principal's PowerPoint, the argument she made was that if the levy didn't pass, the district's boundaries would be redrawn and students from other areas would be bussed into our shiny new school. She said this would make class sizes larger, but I didn't see any classes that day that weren't swimming in the new spaces.)

Next we got up and embarked on a tour of the school, which included a lot of information about the excellent architecture and design, another demo in a science classroom of the microscope/Elmo and deluxe sound system with wireless microphone in front of about a dozen quiet seventh graders. There was also a Hazmat emergency shower in the back of the room-- which looked way more tempting for mischief than any fire extinguisher.

But back to that public/Catholic school question. Because St. Joseph has no middle or high school to this day, Catholic or otherwise. The students have several options, including large Catholic schools in St. Cloud and three different high schools in the district, one suburban (St. Cloud) and two rural (Albany or Holdingford).

However, there was indeed a time when this town had a public (district) school, and all the teachers were nuns. So anyone would think it was a Catholic school, but it was a public school. Steve has an elaborate spiel on it, that he got from research for an article he wrote in a parish booklet a few years ago. I'm tracking down the sources, but meanwhile wanted to post this near my piece about Jon Hassler. I'll return to it, though, when I have a better picture of the situation.

It is true, to this day, that public school students are "released" during the school day to attend religious instruction at the Catholic schools in the area. I first heard about this from a coworker at the press who lives in a very small town called Eden Valley (pop. 954). She talked about teaching religious education and how the public school children who are Catholic walk down to the Catholic church during the school day for religion classes. This arrangement also still exists in the town I used to live in, Cold Spring (pop. 3000), where the Catholic elementary school children take a bus to the Catholic school for religious instruction during the school year. The middle school children can walk over, because their building is next door to the church, the former Catholic high school.

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