Fishtown: St. Laurentius School Excels After a Threat to Close

Mrs. Griffith's 2nd grade class prepares for reading.]

It’s hard to believe that St. Laurentius School, a private Catholic parish school located at 1612 E. Berks St., was threatened with closure a year ago. After a successful campaign to keep the school’s doors open, the institution has firmly established itself as an educational force to be reckoned with.

Mrs. Griffith's 2nd grade class prepares for reading.
Dolores Griffith’s second-grade class spent some time  reading.

“There’s nothing little, other than the size of the building, about St. Laurentius,” said Elaine McKnight, former eighth-grade teacher and current principal of St. Laurentius. McKnight took the job a year ago and is thrilled at the progress the school has made since.

“Enrollment is up and we have waiting lists for certain grades already, which is a trend that, in Catholic education recently in certain areas, hasn’t happened,” said McKnight.

McKnight lists that the school’s current goals include keeping enrollment up, securing a world language teacher for September and continuing to expand their well-established art programs for grades five through eight to the lower grades via a partnership with Port Richmond’s Portside Art Center.

While the school building as it stands was built in 1923, the parish it was founded around is the oldest Polish Roman Catholic Church within the city and the archdiocese, predating the building by about 40 years. “Our building started as a blacksmith shop in 1888,” said McKnight, “but after a year, the parish opened a school and held some classes in the church’s basement before this building was erected.”

Despite its proud Catholic heritage, McKnight is quick to point out that the education offered by the school is open to everyone. “We do have our Catholic identity and your children would have to sit through or participate in our religion classes,” said McKnight, “but that’s not a deterrent for you to come to our school. It’s not strictly for Catholic students and not a lot of people know that.”

The school has excelled in programs for students, including a professional development program with the University of Pennsylvania. “It’s something that we maybe we would not have been able to afford had we not joined this partnership,” said McKnight. “In fact, we stepped into the Common Core standards, something new to the state of Pennsylvania, a little easier than some other places thanks to our partnership We were ready for it.”

The children of St. Laurentius enjoy recess on Berks St.
The children of St. Laurentius enjoyed recess on Berks Street.

The school’s programs seem to be working to its benefit, as it has received Middle Atlantic States Accreditation and the archdiocese has selected its student body to take the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment tests this year. “We’re waiting for our TerraNova and PSSA scores,” said McKnight, “and I know the results will be good because our teachers are prepared every day, always looking for new approaches to get the message across.“

St. Laurentius boasts an eight out of 10 rating on, which is the highest rating for any school in the general area. Readership is also a major accomplishment for the school, with students in kindergarten boasting one-hundred books read individually on their level this year alone and first graders doubling that number. “It’s awesome,” said McKnight. “I have students approaching me in the hallway and starting conversations with ‘the author of the book I’m reading…’ and I’m wondering in the back of my mind where else could you go and have this type of conversation with a 7-year-old?”

Like any other school, St. Laurentius has its struggling students, but its faculty works hard to keep them on the right educational path. “We do our best to bring them up to where they feel comfortable and feel success, “ said McKnight, “and improvement does happen. “

The school also participates in the Response to Instruction and Intervention program. The program is designed to help children struggling in initial skills, particularly in math and reading, which may not be on grade level. “Kids can lose a skill due to absence, maybe they were sick or on vacation and those skills start adding up and then they can’t catch on to higher skills,” said McKnight. “We’ve had much success, because the intense intervention really helps. We intend to keep it up next year. “

Part of the progress at the school also includes new technology for the student body. “We have a full computer lab now, which came from some sponsors from the PTSSD [Penn Treaty Special Services District],” said Dolores Griffith, a second-grade teacher at the school. The school has also implemented SMART Board technology in every classroom as well as general Internet access for students and teachers. “Anything that the school needs goes to the development committee and they give them the money.”

The arts are a source of pride at St. Laurentius School.
The arts are a source of pride at St. Laurentius School.

Community service plays a significant factor in St. Laurentius education as well, something that has led to a lot of community support, including generous grants and donations. Last year, the school raised $500 for the March of Dimes and consistently works in community cleanups. “Since most of our students live here, it’s their community too,” said McKnight. “If the children help especially in community cleanups, they hesitate when they start to throw trash around because they have to stay and clean it up.”

While trips to the Walnut Street Theater and other local ventures secure a sense of local community, McKnight stresses that students are made aware of the national and global communities as well. Students have visited the Holocaust Museum, participated in Hurricane Sandy and Sandy Hook funds and are currently working in tandem with the USO for Christmas in July. The goal is to have 100 boxes packed before July. “One of our intents is to take them out of this little community to broaden their perspective and see the bigger world, the bigger picture, without losing where they are,” said McKnight. “We’re all in this together, especially in education and as future citizens of the world.”

Perhaps most importantly, St. Laurentius has become a close-knit family within itself. McKnight, a former student herself, said she marvels at the dedication of the faculty, staff and volunteers, as well as the growth within the student body. “We’re not an academy, we’re not just for geniuses and every child here gets the attention that they need in whatever they need and that’s what’s most important,” said McKnight. “The child that read one hundred books is also the child that’s doing flashcards or sounds with the child that’s struggling. They’re helping each other and it works.”

See fundraising events for the school at this link.]

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