“Every moment at school is a teaching moment,” says Tammy Neeb, inclusive education specialist and instructional coach at Our Lady of Hope. “I’m there to support the teachers,” she continues. “I’m there to encourage the students to dream big, live into their ideas, to become successful inventors of the lives they deserve.”
Ms. Neeb believes deeply in creativity itself as the teacher. It’s her job—and passion—to encourage it. One of her recent inspirations is that Our Lady of Hope students “Be Like”… and then leave it up to the children to identify with Saints who lived a life they want to reflect. Some choose St. Michael, others St. Peter, a few will look to St. Joan of Arc. “I want to encourage the children to be Daring Disciples,” Ms. Neeb explains. “I want them to walk through Lent knowing Jesus, and His Disciples, also walked through these holy days. Yet I also want the students to realize it took daring to be a Disciple of our Lord.”
“I’m there to encourage the students to dream big, live into their ideas, to become successful inventors of the lives they deserve.”
At the end of their walk? Ms. Neeb’s creativity has imagined a mirror in which her student can see themselves—imagine themselves as the daring disciples they have the potential to be. The mirrors will be within picture frames. The reflections shining proudly back will be the students themselves.
Our Lady of Hope
Not many judges send two-page emails congratulating students who didn’t receive a top award. However, one of the judges at a recent robotics competition did just that. The Holy Cross students, per the judge, were unanimously applauded as a team that deserved recognition. To quote the email, “This first year team was small but mighty. They are obviously on a crusade to work together and excel in the world of Robotics.” To which their coach, Kittie Batiste says, “Amen.”
Ms. Batiste’s team of 5 th and 6 th grade Holy Cross students was tasked with identifying a
challenge within the human water cycle. They had to research the problem and then offer an
innovative solution. The group of three (reduced from seven) spent two and a half months on
the project. All time invested was after school—for both kids and Ms. Batiste. Not only did the
Holy Cross team get a late start on the challenge, in contrast to many schools in the competition, they didn’t have funding.
What they did have, according to Ms. Batiste was eagerness, resilience and tenacity. “The kids
were gung ho,” Ms. Batiste continued. And then she shared the moment they were (almost)
overwhelmed. “When we arrived in our mismatched clothes and saw the teams from 39
competing schools, all in matching shirts, it was intimidating.” Yet the toughest moment was
when the kids were unable to print out their material for a computer code presentation.
However, that was also the moment when the judges took notice. Since they couldn’t print it
out, the students drew the code by hand. According to the email-writing judge, “We were
Next year? According to Ms. Batiste a Holy Cross team will be back. She is already seeing
interest, and she’ll be ready to work with whatever students show up to compete.
Though Ms. Batiste loves teaching at Holy Cross she didn’t start her career at a Catholic school. In fact, she was getting ready to start a job in the public system when she felt a pull toward something different. “God was calling me,” she shared. She has never regretted her decision. According to Ms. Batiste, at Holy Cross the smaller class sizes, respect for teachers and personal faith coalesce to create a more comfortable learning environment. And then there’s the positive attitude of her students, such as the three youngsters she took to the robotics competition.
Again quoting the judge, “They were poised, deferred to each other and obviously understood
what they were doing.” And that, more than any award, is recognition to be proud of.
Beth Jerome, eighth grade teacher and assistant principal at Holy Cross Catholic School, believes deeply in her faith. She believes faith and education are essential to student success and stability. At the core of this stability is community, Mrs. Jerome shares with heartfelt certainty, and is best found, nurtured and supported through a Catholic education, one that continues into a faith-based high school.
Eighth grade is the last grade for Holy Cross students; they begin high school in ninth. As the eighth grade teacher Mrs. Jerome knows her kids have a choice to make—do they continue in a Catholic school or transfer to the public system. “Though many of my students have attended Holy Cross for most of their education,” explains Mrs. Jerome, “It’s a battle to keep them in the Catholic system. It’s often more cost effective to simply switch to a public school. However, parents believe their student has a solid base in faith formation from grade school and so the decision has to be made.”
Mrs. Jerome knows that choices kids will face in high school can be overwhelming. “Yet through faith,” Ms. Jerome shares, “These choices will be easier to navigate.” The obstacles to enrolling in a Catholic high school however, are significant. Fortunately, Mrs. Jerome is committed to chipping away at them, one obstacle at a time.
One of her commitments is to educate parents. “Many of our parents are unfamiliar with the application system in high school,” explains Ms. Jerome. “I provide Catholic high school options. I help them understand financial aid is available. And I encourage them to learn about application deadlines and meet them.”
"Catholic education has impacted my life in many ways. One of the ways that it has impacted my life by helping me to appreciate all of the gifts that God has given me. No matter how small or big those things are in life, we should appreciate everything. This year has really impacted my way of seeing all the advantages this school has given me and my family. I really appreciate how everyone here has supported me by providing many benefits that no other school would have given me. All my teachers have had a great impact on me with my Catholic education and have helped me become a better person. This school helped me to learn to appreciate many other things that I wouldn't have learned somewhere else. I am truly grateful that my parents made my education a priority, and sent me to a Catholic school."
Ms. Jerome also works with her students, lining up opportunities for kids to shadow at Catholic schools around Kansas City. In addition, she has initiated high school placement test preparation on a weekly basis. And every day in eighth grade she drills her kids on the work and study ethic they’ll need for a higher education. Clearly, she understands students face a mountain of challenges—such as how do kids from Kansas City’s northeast neighborhoods get to outlying schools. Mrs. Jerome points out, “Transportation is a huge issue for our families as many of our parents work long days.” Yet she believes her students truly want the opportunity. They want to continue shaping their future in a school grounded in faith and spirit.
One of Ms. Jerome’s students, Yulissa Cabrera, confirms this belief with eloquence. “No matter how small or big the gifts God has given me, we should appreciate everything.” (Read Yulissa’s full quote at above.) Ms. Jerome agrees. And she will do everything in her power to assure the gifts God gives to Yulissa are given to every student who seeks them.
Give the Gift of Smiles All Year
One monthly donation to Bright Futures Fund will help Kansas City kids on their journey through Faith-filled Catholic education.
Just $10 a month (or two Caramel Lattés at Starbucks) gives a gift that lasts all year.
Bunnies in the classroom, eggshells on earth, and Dia de los Muertos all represent a pathway to God; they all offer an opportunity for Jennifer Cecena, our Lady of Hope middle school religion teacher, to talk about faith. Ms. Cecena is deeply committed to conveying the magnitude of faith to the young lives she has the responsibility of shaping. In addition, Ms. Cecena says with emotion, “I love talking about God.” She firmly believes her students do as well.
Having a safe place where God is part of the conversation provides her students a sense of security. And through these conversations youngsters and teachers become family. Ms. Cecena explains that many of her students have—though loving—hectic, irregular home lives. Parents often work multiple jobs; they work nights and weekends. “When they’re with us at school the kids have routine and routine provides great reassurance,” Ms. Cecena continues. “We’re always present. And by working in smaller groups we get to know each other.”
And they get to talk about God, Jesus, Our Lady of Guadalupe, topics not discussed in the public school system. “We tell them God is loving. God is forgiving,” Ms. Cecena explains. God is always present, even through death and tragedy, an assurance Ms. Cecena recently authenticated using the annual celebration of Dia de los Muertos as the lesson.
Since August Ms. Cecena’s students worked on a family enrichment project, constructing shrines to a departed family member or loved one to be displayed at the school as part of the annual celebration with origins in Mexico. When the project was finished in late October, 70 alters were displayed through the halls of the school.
Though the project in itself was important, the true value came from the fact that it involved the help of parents or older family members who shared the memories. “Through this project everyone put lives on pause for a few minutes to think about loved ones lost,” shared Ms. Cecena. “By talking about death, students were able to talk about heaven, to know heaven is real.” One young man lost a brother to a drive-by shooting. Clearly, creating an alter did not erase the pain, yet it did provide an opportunity to add some light (through a candle) to his loss. It allowed emotions that were dark and scary to be transformed into something reassuring. “Creating the alters became part of the healing,” Ms. Cecena reflects.
And what do eggshells have to do with faith? “I tell my student’s we are eggshells on earth,” Ms. Cecena concludes “The spirit is what’s inside. And though eggshells can crack, the spirit can never break. It simply flows.” Faith will always flow, Ms. Cecena believes, including her own. Faith in God, herself as a teacher, and most importantly, the students she teaches.
Imagine sitting in a Starbucks, working on a project or quietly conversing with a colleague. Now consider that Starbucks located on the second floor of a Kansas City Catholic school, Our Lady of Hope and the project-workers are 7th graders who have learned “soft talk” when teasing out collaborative efforts. This is exactly the environment Our Lady of Hope Middle School teacher Dena Campbell envisioned for her classroom. And according to Dena, the idea is working. Success is partly due to her commitment and partly to the kids themselves. “They want this,” she confirms.
Dena spent the past summer scouring free Craig’s List ads, gathering together the table tops, chairs and white boards necessary to turn rows of desks into a coffee-shop style setting. Not only is the concept a stretch (in a good way!) for her students, it’s a stretch for Dena herself. She admits she likes her classroom set up in rows with everyone alphabetized by name. However, she also knows that for students to be ready for the 21st Century, they need 21st Century Skills. Three of them are collaboration, cooperation and creativity—concepts not encouraged through row-sitting.
Through the innovative classroom arrangement, the students themselves are finding imaginative pathways to confidence. They self-select their sitting groups. Though a youngster can’t be “kicked out” of a group, they can choose to opt out. However, if they do, and aren’t invited into another group, they’re still held responsible for a project’s completion. Their option is to work on it alone. Some do. Others realize they need to develop the skills Dena has identified as vital to their success—collaboration, cooperation and creativity.
Has the new approach made a difference in student’s performance, Dena is asked. She answers that yes, they’re getting through more of their reading material. Yet the biggest difference she notices isn’t as quantifiable. “They help each other, they seem to care more about each other,” she reflects. “And they’re willing to work through the challenges life will present them.” One of those challenges will always be that when you’re sitting around a table together, it’s good to figure out how to get along with the person sitting next to you.
Our Lady of Hope third grade teacher and track coach Kristin Goers, doesn’t have to say much when asked about her experiences at the school and how they have impacted her life, and the life of the kids she’s known over the years. Her face, lighting up in a smile, says it all. “There are so many experiences,” she explains. “I feel so fortunate. Being a coach is a big part of my life.” So is being a teacher. Kristin has taught at Our Lady of Hope for her entire, 12-year teaching career.
Kristin’s memories stretch back to her own school days when she was running track herself. And she recalls with obvious pride the youngsters she herself has coached over the years. She stays in touch with many of them, following their academic success while applauding their life decisions.
One young man (a fifth grader when she met him), Navardo, has an especially heartwarming story with an ending that is shaping up to be happy. The self-conscious youngster walked into her classroom after moving to the country from Jamaica. “His home life was challenging,” Kristin shared. Perhaps because she sensed he needed a friend, she became one. She also became his coach, though the coaching detoured through a football team.
Recognizing football as a sport with more likelihood for injury, Kristin encouraged him to pass. Navardo insisted, played in his first game and promptly broke his leg. Once it healed—with Kristin helping him get to and from home on his crutches—he joined the track team, and stayed there. “I get to form different relationships with the kids I coach,” she explained. As a coach her relationships often have more impact, more influence for good, for doing God’s work. She realizes how fortunate she is.
Navardo, after completing high school at Rockhurst, is now at Johnson County Community College on his way to a bright future. Kristin Goers couldn’t be more pleased.
by Diana Welsh-Struby, Chair, Bright Futures Fund
As I enjoy these early days of the fall season, I’m delighted—as always—to visit the schools Bright Futures supports and witness the fresh young faces of our diverse student populations. Yet I’m also reminded of all the faces that walked our halls in year’s past. We have such a deep, multi-generational tradition in our Catholic schools. Our beloved alumni are our most blessed legacy. As one of these alumni, I feel compelled to offer a few words of reflection.
We need to keep our connections strong. We need to honor where we’ve been; we need to remember, recognize and revere those who made it possible to be the loving communities of education, faith and hope that we are today.
Saint Stephens, Our Lady of Peace, Assumption, Saint Anthony, Saint Michaels and Holy Rosary were all—at one time—grand traditions of Catholic education. Today that tradition continues at Holy Cross. We are fortunate indeed to have Barbara Deane serve as the school’s principal.
As much as life has changed over the years, the abiding belief in the value of a Catholic education has remained at the core of so much good in our complicated world. Over the years Catholics such as ourselves have come from all over the world to settle in neighborhoods around Kansas City. At one time the area where Holy Cross is now located was a proud Italian community brimming with proud Italian families. The roots of many of today’s Catholic families—such as the Cosentino and Barreca families—first prayed and went to school and came together as community in Kansas City’s Northeast neighborhood. Yes, we all come from somewhere and as we assimilate, we also seek to maintain the culture that deeply defines us.
We must work hard to maintain our Catholic culture and traditions. As the new school year gets underway, I encourage all of us to remember the grand traditions of years gone by and to thank those who led the way to the beloved Church we are today.
"Please let me know if you’d like to join an informal group of alumni who attended Our Lady of Hope or one of the other loving, caring Catholic Schools that nurtured our community for so many years."
Dancing isn’t for everyone. Sashing to a beat takes a certain amount of confidence, coordination and self-assurance. So when a young student at Holy Cross, sweet yet somewhat socially-unsure, stood up in front of a crowd of 50 potential donors and offered his personal, impassioned testimony for his love of dance, Barbara Deane took, the school’s principal, took notice. “I’d never heard this youngster utter more than ten words,” she shared, “and here he was speaking articulately in front of a roomful.” Perhaps dancing isn’t for everyone. But for that particular young man, it was life-changing.
To dance is to take a risk, Deane explained. In fact when she first introduced, Take the Stage, an educational outreach program of the Owen Cox Dance troupe, her middle school students were horrified. The prospect of getting it wrong kept them from enjoying the process at all. “The younger kids however,” Deane continued, “were all over it.” Learning to dance equates to learning body awareness, cultivating confidence.
For the past three years Take the Stage, engages fourth and second grade students at both Holy Cross and Our Lade of Hope in an innovative curriculum which encourages discipline, develops self-confidence and helps youngsters discover their unique and creative talents.
“If not necessarily a life-changer,” Deane concludes, “It’s definitely been a life-enhancer for middle schoolers.”
Typically second grade Holy Cross students show up the first day of school knowing how to read, having mastered their know-how the year before. One young boy didn’t. A reserved, quiet youngster, the little tyke, nevertheless, was the first student to reach out to the school’s new reading mentor, approaching her with a book of his choice and then sitting down to read the words out loud. The book was Clifford the Big Red Dog. The mentor was Addy, a Labrador retriever mix.
Barbara Deane, principal, had been interested in the benefits of dogs to soothe anxiety while encouraging student participation for a number of years, but had never had the opportunity to have a dog on staff. Two months ago the right dog showed up with the right credentials.
Shelley Henn, second grade teacher, heard about “Puppies for Parole”—a program for rescue dogs trained by prison inmates. With the responsibility of having a dog to share their limited space, the prisoners taught their four-legged cellmates to be adaptable, attentive, and—most importantly—patient. Once Shelley visited Holy Cross’ prospective pup, she know it was meant to be. Addy was bundled into her car and arrived for work in the classroom the very next day.
According to Ms. Deane, “Addy is available for hugs, ball-toss games at recess, and especially reading.” The classroom includes a reading chair which Addy sits near when she's ready to work. When she needs a break, instead of heading for the teachers’ lounge, she simply lies down on the floor. When she does, the kids respect her need for rest, just as Addy respects their eagerness and enthusiasm when they sit by her side with a book—and sometimes her fur—in hand.
Even reading-adverse middle school students line up to read with Addy. Though the typically self-conscious kids will do anything to keep from reading in public—a responsibility they’re occasionally asked to fulfill at Mass—they seem more open to the idea when they get a chance to practice with Addy.
“Another terrific side effect of having a reading dog,” Ms. Deane chuckles, “is that we're having a lot of requests for books about dogs!”
When first time efforts equate to big time success, kids jump up and down. Parents cry. Teachers feel a deep sense of satisfaction in work well done.
This past April, seven science projects from Holy Cross School were accepted to compete in the Greater Kansas City Science and Engineering Festival. Not every entry makes the cut. Those that do are typically entered by teachers from schools that have—for years—participated in the festival and support their students’ efforts with hefty science-focused budgets, and resources provided by families with sizable means. However, sometimes the little schools win and students with first-time entries receive accolades they never expected.
Not only did five of the seven entries from Holy Cross win Silver awards (two students shared a bronze), two young ladies, Yulissa Cabrera and Viviana Calderon—partners on their physics and astronomy project—won gold, and a purple rosette ribbon. The purple rosette award automatically qualified them in the Broadcom MASTERS®, an international science and engineering competition sponsored by the Broadcom Foundation. This alone is a tremendous honor. The competition is open to sixth, seventh and eighth graders around the world and only the top ten percent of science fair projects are selected. After learning of their win, Yulissa and Viviana were elated. Wendy McKellar, their teacher, was profoundly proud.
Yet the biggest winner was hope itself. By stepping up to the challenge, preparing an application, refining their project once the preliminary application was accepted, and entering their idea as one of thousands, the young students realized they can accomplish great things if they want it hard enough and then go after what they want. According to McKellar, “Putting together science projects takes a lot of energy. Yet the kids themselves owned their efforts, they owned their learning. When they realized the responsibility was all theirs, they took charge of the work. I was simply the guide on the side.”
McKellar concludes by reflecting on her students, “They are so sweet, so humble. Their families—though not necessarily able to support their children through financial funding—provided something even more essential. They believed in their children’s future, that education is a pillar of that future, and that where you come from is not where you’re going.” Yet where they come from—Holy Cross—a school grounded in love of family, school, and the Gospel of Jesus Christ, is the best to come from they could have hoped for.