Curriculum and Instruction – Madonna High School wins Innovations in Catholic Education Award

Award-winning schools

By Victoria R. LaFave

Today’s Catholic Teacher honored the winners of the 23rd annual Innovations in Catholic Education Award. Awards are given in four categories: promoting Catholic identity; technology integration; curriculum and instruction; and total community involvement, including fundraising.

Congratulations to Madonna High School! 

Madonna High School, Weirton, West Virginia

The 2020 winner of the award for curriculum and instruction is Madonna High School (Madonna) in Weirton, West Virginia, which serves 127 students in the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston.

“We were honored to be chosen as the winner in our category,” Madonna High School Principal Jamie Lesho told TCT, “and for being recognized for our efforts to provide an exceptional, state-of-the-art education for our students.

“At Madonna High School, our dedicated and talented faculty, staff, and Advisory Council are committed to providing Madonna students with core academic tools for college and beyond,” Lesho said. “Being that it is more competitive than ever to get into college, it is incumbent on our students to present the strongest possible portfolio.”

Since the school had limited funding, Lesho explained that they needed creative solutions that leveraged resources in order to provide students with a strong advantage in helping them take their next steps in life.

In response to this need, Madonna has implemented four new tracks: Healthcare, Engineering, Legal, and Business career. The school utilizes its current academics plus an additional course where students attend a series of MOOCs (massive open online courses) over the period of one year.

“These courses will help our students figure out which major to choose and ultimately, save them money,” Lesho added. “Starting college knowing what they want to study means they won’t waste time bouncing between majors and paying for useless classes.”

MOOC in process with professor

They take these classes with minimal cost to the school and receive lectures from the best professors in the nation from leading universities such as Harvard, University of Pennsylvania, Stanford, Yale, Georgia Tech, and many others.

“This enables students to gain outstanding knowledge from excellent professors from prestigious universities that enable them to discern clearly if they want to be in that field or not,” Lesho explained. “This is using technology that is inexpensive and has an invaluable benefit to both parents and students.”

Anything students can do in high school to show future college admissions counselors that they are serious about learning will help their applications, Lesho noted. “Plus, taking these massive open online courses shows both initiative and intellectual curiosity—characteristics of a successful student.

“In an increasingly connected and digital world, MOOCs are an excellent way to learn,” Lesho continued. “These courses are rigorous and provide high school credit, but more importantly, students are also learning any number of valuable skills, even building their own personal learning networks.

“Our students have been very receptive to the challenge of new ways to learn,” he said. “The courses are taught by the best professors at leading universities across the U.S. and the rest of the world. To add to the benefits, we have been fortunate to have the professors that teach these courses interact with the students.

“Our team at Madonna knows this is a best practice in education and we have continued to improve the effectiveness of the MOOCs in a high school environment,” Lesho said.

Principal Lesho says he looks forward to sharing his knowledge about this curriculum change with other Catholic schools. “We welcome the opportunity to work with other schools to help them implement these courses in their schools. It will substantially improve the school’s curriculum, excite their students, and provide another path to prepare students for the next phase of education.”

Learn more about Madonna High School:


Two Finalists 

The two finalists, awarded for their schools’ innovative project in curriculum and instruction are: Southern Tier Catholic School, in Olean, New York, praised for its Social Emotional Learning Program, and Saint Ambrose Catholic School in Brunswick, Ohio, awarded for its ‘Baby Boomers Project’.


Southern Tier Catholic School (STCS), serving students in grades PreK-8, is located in Olean, a low-income community in western New York State—a community facing several challenges, including a declining population and businesses that are closing. Students struggle with social-emotional needs, including relationship skills, respect, problem-solving, empathy and self-esteem. School staff understands that in order for these students to succeed academically, their nonacademic needs also must be met. To do this, the school has adopted a strong emphasis on character development and social-emotional learning.

Partnership with Catholic Charities of Buffalo

Happy students at Southern Tier Catholic School

Southern Tier Catholic School was selected by Catholic Charities of Buffalo to receive social worker services, which have been extremely beneficial for students and teachers. A social worker is at the school five days a week to provide lessons on social-emotional learning and one-on-one sessions with students.

Another important step for STCS was its adoption—through the partnership with Catholic Charities—of social-emotional learning assessments. Students are screened at the beginning of the year, identifying areas in which they may need additional support. Social workers and teachers then use that data to select the appropriate growth strategies to support each student’s needs.

Partnership with The Seneca Nation

The school has a large population of students who are from the Seneca Nation, so representatives from the Seneca Nation are engaged to teach their language and culture to students. “This is a great way for our students to practice empathy and respect, as well as learn about cultures,” STCS President Thomas Manko said.

Southern Tier Catholic School’s emphasis on the whole child through sessions with social workers, data-driven social-emotional assessments and interventions and partnerships with the high school and the Seneca Nation has had amazing benefits. Teachers have observed that students are getting along better, and there are fewer conflicts on the playground as a result of their social-emotional work.

“Southern Tier Catholic School is a bright light for children and families in the Olean community, and we are very proud that Today’s Catholic Teacher has recognized our school as a finalist,” Manko said. “One of the reasons this school is so amazing is because of our commitment to serve the whole child.”

 Learn more about Southern Tier Catholic School:


Saint Ambrose School educators and students are innovative leaders using their faith, skills, talents and knowledge to solve humanitarian and technological issues through serving others.

Students at St. Ambrose Schools working on problem solving

Saint Ambrose Principal Lisa Cinadr said, “Thank you for this honor! To be recognized by Today’s Catholic Teacher for our innovative program compels us to continue the important twenty-first century teaching and learning that happens every day at Saint Ambrose School.”

Saint Ambrose School’s fourth and fifth grade teachers formed a partnership with local contractor Steve Moore from J.L. Moore Inc. SilverApple, an education partner of Saint Ambrose School, facilitated the partnership between the school and J.L. Moore Inc. Silver Apple provided training for teachers to effectively plan and implement the Baby Boomers Project, a real-world problem-based learning experience.

Students discussed the construction industry with Moore, who presented the challenges: First, students would help to design communities for the aging Baby Boomer generation. J.L. Moore Inc., a commercial construction business transitioning to residential communities, is developing housing for Baby Boomers seeking to purchase housing after their children have moved out of their homes. Second, students were introduced to trade jobs. The construction industry is in need of honest, dependable hard workers with strong work ethics.

Cross-Curricular Approach and Engineering Design Process

Saint Ambrose fourth and fifth grade faculty and J.L. Moore Inc. collaborated to develop a standards-based, cross-curricular learning unit for the students. Each teacher led a part of the project, with students designing prototypes from their research using the engineering design process.

This project taught science, technology, math, graphic arts, music (students created a commercial for J.L. Moore), and religion (taking into account the dignity of each human person). It also encompassed ELA, with students creating a folded brochure for the Baby Boomer communities. In the visual arts portion, students researched examples of building designs. For example, architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright were researched. (Ohio has a number of Frank Lloyd Wright buildings.) Based on their research, the teams were tasked with creating houses to meet Baby Boomers’ needs.

The unit culminated with a “Celebration of Learning” during which the students presented their solutions to J.L. Moore, Brunswick Mayor Ron Falconi, Brunswick City Manager Carl DeForest, civic leaders and members of the parish and school.

“This Baby Boomer Project brought relevant and real-world challenges and learning to our fourth and fifth grade students,” Cinadr concluded, “and opened their eyes to a whole generation with growing needs.”

“We are blessed at Saint Ambrose School to have a strong team of faculty, staff and administration who are working with the many partners in our community,” said Father Bob Stec, Pastor, Saint Ambrose Parish. “We strive to engage the minds and hearts of our students with twenty-first century learning combined with strong values and the blessing of great partnerships and relationships.”

Learn more about Saint Ambrose School:  



Victoria R. LaFave writes for Today’s Catholic Teacher, and for Holy Name Catholic School and The Bishop Noa Home, both in Escanaba, Michigan. She has had several of her stories published in Chicken Soup for the Soul books.

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