Promoting Catholic Identity: St. Joseph’s Catholic School in West St. Paul, MN, wins 2020 Innovations in Catholic Education Award

Award-winning schools

By Victoria LaFave

Today’s Catholic Teacher (TCT) is proud to announce the winner and finalists 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 St. Joseph’s Catholic School!

St. Joseph Catholic School, West St. Paul, Minnesota

The 2020 winner of the award in the Catholic identity category is St. Joseph’s Catholic School in West St. Paul, MN, a PreK-8 school, which serves 382 students in the Diocese of St. Paul/Minneapolis.

“It is a tremendous gift to witness our students experience the person of Jesus through the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd as a part of our curriculum. We are humbled and grateful for this recognition,” Principal Greg Wesely told TCT.

St. Joseph’s Catholic School has incorporated its Catechesis of the Good Shepherd (CGS) program into the religion curriculum.

CGS allows students to have a deep and profound encounter with the loving person of Jesus Christ and the mystery of the Mass and sacraments, and to come to appreciate the richness of the Catholic intellectual life. The students are evangelized and catechized simultaneously.

The CGS program, created to help students understand and visualize what it truly means to live as Catholic disciples, is a Montessori approach to catechesis for ages three through twelve.

The Church of St. Joseph began its pilot CGS program in 2003 with 14 students, with great success and subsequent growth under the direction of Christina Stokman, Director of Catechesis and Formation. It was then incorporated into St. Joseph’s School in preschool through grade five in 2015.

Part of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd curriculum

“To date, our parish has one of the largest Catechesis of the Good Shepherd programs in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, and the most comprehensive in-school approach in the Archdiocese out of the traditional style schools,” Wesely said. “CGS is a well-known and well-loved tool in faith formation programs around the country, but it’s not typical for a school to incorporate it into the curriculum. Our incorporation of CGS into the student’s schooling has been innovative and fruitful.”

CGS places the focus on a peaceful, personal encounter with the person of Jesus Christ. It supports a classroom teacher’s understanding and commitment to both imparting knowledge and assuring the retention of that knowledge with the need for self-guided time to come to know and love the person of Jesus as the Good Shepherd. In the Atrium (as the spaces are known), the children have unconstrained, but guided time to do their “work.”

This relationship provides the jumping-off point for the religion curriculum and sacramental preparation happening in the classroom. The CGS Atrium complements the classroom religion curriculum, rather than replacing it.

“It is important and irreplaceable for students to have time in the classroom so they can learn how deep the knowledge of the Church is –indeed, many conversions happen due to the depth of the intellectual tradition of the Catholic Church,” Wesely explained. “Adding CGS into our program has allowed students to have a deep and profound encounter with the loving person of Jesus Christ and the mystery of the Mass and sacraments, and come to appreciate the seriousness and richness of the Catholic intellectual life.”

Encountering parables in both the classroom and the Atrium helps students delve deeper into the richness of the scripture. Sacramental preparation is greatly enhanced through this multifaceted approach. Students come to their First Holy Eucharist with thorough academic preparation, as well as ample time in the Atrium exploring the Eucharistic prayers and real presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

Wesely noted another benefit to the CGS program: “Incorporating Catechesis of the Good Shepherd into our religion curriculum and instruction has been incredibly fruitful for our school community. This innovation has deepened our school’s Catholic identity, has helped our students to flourish in their understanding of our faith, and has provided them the formation to develop a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.”


Learn more about St. Joseph’s Catholic School:


Two Finalist Schools

The two finalists for their schools’ innovative project in promoting Catholic identity are St. Columba School in Durango, CO, in the Diocese of Pueblo, for its Solar School Project, and St. Paschal Baylon Catholic School in Highland Heights, Ohio, for its “Only One You” project.


St. Columba School solar farm

In September 2019, St. Columba School (SCS) installed a 216-panel solar farm on the rooftop of its elementary building, providing power for the entire campus, including all school and church buildings.

“This dynamic initiative is a blessing to our entire parish and our community,” said SCS Principal Kevin Chick. “We are proud to have been recognized by Today’s Catholic Teacher for promoting our Catholic identity in serving as stewards of God’s creation.”

He noted the importance of the words of Pope Francis: ‘Please, I would like to ask all those who have positions of responsibility in economic, political and social life, and all men and women of goodwill: let us be ‘protectors’ of creation, protectors of God’s plan inscribed in nature, protectors of one another and of the environment.’

St. Columba School heeded these words, and is proud to be one of the first schools in Durango to be carbon neutral in electrical use. “Our Solar Project is a shining example of using God’s renewable resources to create a cash flow that can be channeled back into the school,” he said.

St. Columba School’s solar farm models stewardship of resources, and produces carbon-free energy that will result in hundreds of thousands of dollars in savings to be dedicated to support Catholic education and the school’s call as intentional disciples to the New Evangelization.

The school is also using this project to incorporate teaching opportunities into curriculum, instruction, and technology. Students will access real-time energy production data through a kiosk, as well as materials to be used across multiple subjects.

The school received a $50,000 grant from the FDA and $50,000 from a local business for its solar school project, and has offered opportunities locally and nationwide to fund a panel for $500. The school has supported over 50 panels, and hopes to surpass 100 panels.

Solar education taking place

“Using the sun as a source of energy makes sense in many ways,” Principal Chick explained. “Another reason that we were interested in using solar power is a desire to save money. We will have savings that will protect teaching positions, update technology, and expand extracurricular opportunities. When every penny counts, solar energy makes it easier to balance the budget.”

Learn more about St. Columba School, which serves 225 students in PreK-8: 






The Catholic social justice teaching of solidarity—the idea of valuing others around us and respecting them as individuals—is the focus of finalist Saint Paschal Baylon (SPB) Catholic School’s “Only One You” project.

St. Paschal Babylon students work on their projects

“We are honored to have been chosen as a finalist for our ‘Only One You’ project. Our Catholic identity is what defines us, and this project promotes solidarity and helps students appreciate the differences of others,” SPB principal Diane Raguz said.

“The project, which began in June 2019, was the perfect opportunity to kick off our buddies program in which students collaborate with their buddies and contribute to a project that involved the entire school community,” explained Assistant Principal Sheila Klepcyk. “Our school finds great value in our students forming positive relationships with grade level buddies throughout the school year.”

The Blessed Sacrament Ladies Guild parish organization funded the project by purchasing over 200 copies of the book Only One You by Linda Kranz for students in preschool through grade three, along with over 200 themed bookmarks, art supplies, and landscaping materials.

The book shares wisdom that a mother and father fish provide to their child as he goes off into the world with profound, inspirational messages about the importance of respecting each others’ differences, living in a positive way, and appreciating the beauty around us. On every page, there are pictures of rock fish that are each painted in a unique way.

Grade level buddies met to read the book together, with upper grade students reading Only One You to younger students and presenting the books to them. Younger students gave their older buddies bookmarks with messages from the book. Buddies worked together to paint their unique rock fish.

Outside the school the”Only One You” creations are displayed.

“The culminating activity was creating a ‘river’ of our rock fish just outside our school entrance,” Raguz said. “The river is a powerful reminder to all in our school community that each of us is unique and has something important and special to share with the world.”

The original driving force of this school-wide project was the Catholic teaching of solidarity; this spirit of unity has stayed strong throughout the school community.

“What began as a small idea grew into a lasting reminder to everyone entering Saint Paschal Baylon Catholic School,” Raguz said. “There’s only one you in this great big world. Make it a better place!”

Learn more about Saint Paschal Baylon Catholic School, which serves 403 students:


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.


All photos courtesy of participating schools.

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