Total Community Involvement


The Lands’ End Sponsor team congratulates representatives of Immaculate Conception Catholic School at the April 2019 awards event. Copyright 2019 Lisa Julia Photography/Bayard Inc. All rights reserved.

Immaculate Conception Catholic School in Denton, Texas, wins 2019 Innovations in Catholic Education Award

By Victoria R. LaFave

The 2019 winner in the total community involvement category of the Innovations in Catholic Education Awards is Immaculate Conception Catholic School in Denton, Texas. Brandon Nabors, representing award sponsor Lands’ End School, presented the honor at the April 24, 2019, awards event during the NCEA Conference in Chicago.

“We were humbled to be chosen as winner in our category,” Immaculate Conception Catholic School (ICCS) Principal Elaine Schad told TCT. “We are providing hands-on, lifelong learning experiences for our students. We instill a love of learning, of service, and an appreciation of the entire world, including the need for stewardship of God’s earth.”

ICCS students with plants growing in the school’s greenhouse. Courtesy of Immaculate Conception Catholic School.

A Texas-accredited PreK–8 school serving 231 students in the Diocese of Fort Worth, ICCS has a mission of promoting the development of the whole child through the educational process. What began as a small garden effort 13 years ago has blossomed into an award-winning program that fits well with the school’s mission, Schad explained.

ICCS is the only institution in the state of Texas — from preschool through the university level — to receive the 2018 Sadie Ray Graff Institution Award from Keep Texas Beautiful, which recognizes efforts made by youth and educators working to improve and beautify their communities.

The partnership among the school, parish, and community through grants and non-cash support has been critical in the development of this program, Schad said. These grants were used to support educational efforts connected to the development of the vegetable garden, recycling, landscaping, greenhouse construction, and sustainability projects. Recent grants included the 2018 Keep Denton Beautiful grant for $500, a $1,000 grant from Catholic Life Insurance, and a $575 grant from Denton Sustainable Schools.

Students are able to be highly engaged through the school’s elective courses at the middle school level and outdoor learning opportunities for all grade levels. For example, ICCS has student “recycle teams.” In addition, students constructed a greenhouse, learned beginning design and construction techniques; gained knowledge about seasons, planting, proper soil selection, fertilizing, and composting; and maintained their garden.

ICCS students building the greenhouse. Courtesy of Immaculate Conception Catholic School.

The school has added an Outdoor Classroom/Learning Area incorporating math, science, and art projects and other STEM outdoor extension activities, and schedules “buddy” projects where older students educate younger students in planting, weeding, and other gardening techniques. Fifth-graders teach preschool students how worms enhance the soil, how to prepare seed beds, and how to plant properly. Students at all grade levels mulch, compost, recycle, pull weeds, and learn about plant balance and organic ways to control weeds and insects.

Service is a critical part of the leadership development of ICCS students through these programs. For example, the school provides produce grown in its garden to Our Daily Bread Soup Kitchen. Students harvest produce, clean it, and prepare it for transport to the soup kitchen. For more than a decade, more than 150 volunteers under age 18, 30 adults, and more than 650 volunteer hours have been incorporated into ICCS’ program annually. Perhaps most impressive: Approximately 350 pounds of fresh produce is delivered to the soup kitchen annually from the school’s garden.

Schad noted that offering hands-on gardening experiences and environmental education to children makes a difference. Research shows that having a school garden results in significantly increased science achievement scores, increased respect for nature lasting into adulthood, and increased willingness to improve nutrition.

“These altruistic projects maintain good stewardship of the earth’s resources and tie directly into the development of a servant’s heart,” Schad explained, “which allows caring for the earth, helping the poor, dedication to the education of youth, and teamwork in becoming problem solvers of the world’s challenges.”

Principal Schad summed up the program: “While there is an immediate impact gained through this program, we believe that these environmental stewardship experiences will translate into the greater community as our students leave their schools and go out into the world to build their families and careers. We want to nurture the next generation so they have a deep awareness of what God has given them.”

Learn more about Immaculate Conception Catholic School: CatholicSchoolDenton.org

Lands’ End School also presented awards to two finalists for the Innovative Project in Total Community Involvement at the April 24 event. Julie Billiart School in Lyndhurst, Ohio, in the Diocese of Cleveland, was honored for its Beyond Camp program. Saint Augustine of Canterbury Roman Catholic School of Kendall Park, New Jersey, a National Blue Ribbon School of Excellence in the Diocese of Metuchen, won recognition for helping the homeless.

Julie Billiart School (JB), a Catholic, alternative, K-8 grade school, has a commitment to provide the highest level of education and care for children of any faith with special learning needs. JB empowers students to believe that anything is possible.

JB’s Beyond Camp offers summer fun and a focus on academic and social skills. Courtesy of Julie Billiart School.

“We are so grateful and excited to be honored by Today’s Catholic Teacher for our innovative vocational program project at Beyond Camp,” Director Chris McCloskey said. “Our vocational program has provided several opportunities to some of our former students to gain essential work skills that will assist them in life-long independence and full inclusion in the community.”

Six years ago, Julie Billiart School launched Beyond Camp, a four-week summer camp providing social-skills training and combating summer learning loss (SLL) for students with special learning needs. SLL is especially detrimental for students who rely on school to teach social skills alongside academics. At JB, where professionals carefully document student learning through Individualized Education Programs, administrators have noted that most students lose academic and social skills over the summer.

The primary goals of Beyond Camp are to: develop social skills, including perspective taking and emotional regulation; generalize these skills to the community, which students will need for career readiness; provide creative expression opportunities through exercise, cooking, writing, art, computer coding, singing, acting, and sports; and provide an academic boost to combat SLL.

Beyond Camp serves approximately 55 students with learning differences and is directed by McCloskey, who is also one of the school’s intervention specialists. Beyond Camp is also staffed with highly experienced intervention specialists, a board-certified behavior analyst, and a speech/language pathologist.

Staff members develop and implement social goals, collect data daily on each goal, and adjust goals weekly based on progress.

In a pilot program over two summers, Beyond Camp included two former JB students (current high school students) as Counselors in Training. The program expanded to include a full vocational program for high school students with learning challenges.

Learn more about Julie Billiart School: JulieBilliartSchool.org

Saint Augustine of Canterbury Roman Catholic School (SAC), the second finalist, is a National Blue Ribbon School of Excellence. Middle-school students at Saint Augustine of Canterbury Roman Catholic School have created a “plarning” ministry in order to live the words of Matthew’s Gospel, “whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.”

The students were inspired to form the group after the school’s celebration of National Hunger & Homelessness Awareness Week, which gave them a greater appreciation for the plight of the homeless and needy.

With the help of religion teacher Colleen Paras, middle school students learn how to make “plarn” (plastic yarn). They collect grocery bags, cut them into strips, tie them together, and roll them into balls. The balls of plarn are then used to crochet plastic mats that are lighter and more weather-resistant than cloth mats and provide cushioning for someone who is sitting or sleeping on a hard surface.

Crocheting plarn mats at SAC. Courtesy of St. Augustine of Canterbury Roman Catholic School.

Each mat is six feet long, requires 600 to 700 bags, and can take as long as 40 hours to crochet. The mats are donated to homeless people in the local community.

“Creating the mats from beginning to end requires hours of intensive labor and intentional love,” Paras said.

Students meet after school weekly to create plarn, often with their parents and younger siblings. Each week, the students offer prayers for the individuals who will receive the mats. “Students offer many prayers for their brothers and sisters in need,” Paras said, “but the one that resonates with me the most was when a student prayed, ‘That they may know they were made for them in love.’”

The plarning ministry has taught the students the value of helping those in need.

“Participation in the plarning ministry has taught our students to have greater respect and compassion for one another,” Paras continued. “It has shown them that through simple acts of love and kindness, they can bring dignity to the lives of those less fortunate and that they can make a difference in the world around them.”

Paras said she is grateful for the award, and she hopes other schools follow in her students’ footsteps.

“It is truly an honor to be named a finalist in this category for the plarning service of our students. We pray this acknowledgment plants seeds for other schools to serve those in need and allows our students to know how greatly God has blessed the work they continue to do.”

Learn more about St. Augustine of Canterbury Roman Catholic School: StAugustineNJ.org/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. Several of her stories have been published in Chicken Soup for the Soul books.

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