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placeholder August 14, 2017   •   VOL. 55, NO. 14   •   Oakland, CA

St. Jarlath School closed in June.
ALBERT C. PACCIORINI/THE CATHOLIC VOICE

Ripple Academy charts new course
for values-based education

A veteran Catholic educator is creating ripples of hope with his proposal for an Oakland public charter school serving students from transitional kindergarten to eighth grade.

In designing his new school, Rodney Pierre-Antoine, who served as principal of St. Jarlath School in Oakland, reflected on his Catholic roots. "We work on kids coming to know God, know that they're loved by God, and that God calls them to love and serve others.

Rodney Pierre-Antoine

"We're going to be a public charter school," he said. "Some of those tenets can't be present. The notion of loving neighbor, and serving neighbor is universally embraced and accepted."

"That piece of our Catholic mission is accepted and welcomed in the secular world," he said.

In about a year, Pierre-Antoine hopes that Ripple Academy — a publicly funded school — will inhabit the school building in the parish. That school opened in 1930.

"St. Jarlath School struggled with enrollment," said Rev. Stephan Kappler, pastor. "Come the weekend," he said, with 460 elementary-school-age students in faith formation, "the classrooms were overflowing."

The pastor reached out to the families, offering the opportunity to enroll in the school.

"When you asked," he said, "you would get the answer, 'We can't afford it.'"

St. Jarlath School was among five elementary schools in the Diocese of Oakland that closed in June.

But that closure doesn't end the parish's interest in the education.

"Charter schools have been an option for several decades," said Father Kappler. "It is a system that by and large has worked well," he said. "They have offered high quality education and worked well for students."

Often, too, when a Catholic school closes, a charter school opens in its place. Ripple Academy would be a "charter school that works for our population. You can offer high quality education on a non-tuition basis," Father Kappler said.

Pierre-Antoine sees that hope in his academy's name.

"Holding on and holding fast to this notion of loving and serving, and taking your gifts and talents and impacting other around you, that notion of paying it forward and having an impact, we eventually came to this notion of 'Ripple,'" Pierre-Antoine said.

He knows what kind students those at Ripple Academy will be.

"We want our kids to be change-agents who not only are aware of the impact that they can have, but also who are active agents who go about and have that impact on their community, their school, their family, their city, broadly the world," he said.

Pierre-Antoine has received a fellowship with Educate 78, an incubator for designers and redesigners of schools, public and charter, in Oakland. (The 78 refers to the number of square miles in the city.)

He enlisted opinions of parents and students to help develop the vision.

"We were trying to capture the essence of the school we wanted to create," he said. They sought to "build on the tangible things Catholic school does, that parents, especially in this community, are attracted to," he said.

They had several focus groups with parents. "The number one things parents said they wanted was a safe environment," Pierre-Antoine said. "In our mission, safe is present, because that's what parents wanted."

Among the feedback from the students: Provide more differentiation for students working at different grade levels. This is an area where having the right technology would be vital.

Resources are a major portion of this equation. As a public charter school, the school would receive between $9,000 and $10,000 per pupil, an amount that is determined by the state and the school district.

That is about twice the amount of money that had been available to St. Jarlath School, he said.

"I look forward to what a school could look like when you have the active resources to meet the needs of the students," Pierre-Antione said.

Ripple Academy is expected to make its proposal to the Oakland Unified School District board in September, Pierre-Antoine said. If all goes well, Ripple Academy would open its doors for transitional kindergarten, kindergarten, first grade and sixth grade, in fall 2018.

By its fifth year, it would be a complete TK-8 school.

Those sixth-graders will become the leaders of the school who will "provide service to Ripple Academy by serving as mentors for our K-1," Pierre-Antoine said. "Those K-1 kids will, in essence, be mentoring our sixth-graders as well."

"I also think we will do a lot of work on culture development and establishing a clear identity for our school that is grounded in our mission, vision and values.

"I'm excited for what it could mean for the community," Pierre-Antoine said. "I think our model can work."

Ripple Academy's core values of excellence, persistence, dignity, justice, solidarity and joy may sound familiar.

"Three of those things, you hear it, you think, these are tenets of Catholic Social Teaching — dignity, justice, solidarity — but those are all values that are embraced in our secular world," Pierre-Antoine said.

Parents will play a significant role in reinforcing those values.

"We're going to be very explicit with them: These are things that we are going to hold sacred and value within our community," he said. "As supportive partners we're going to hope they reinforce these values at home."

The academic plan will use "best resources and best curriculum," employing teachers who are dedicated to implementing it consistently. Quarterly conferences are planned to help students, parents and teachers evaluate not just academic progress but progress on the path toward becoming what Pierre-Antoine called "reflective scholars."

To accompany the "values-based, mission-driven" curriculum at Ripple Academy, St. Jarlath Parish will offer what Father Kappler, the pastor, called "a very robust faith wrap-around."

"I think it will be a very attractive component," he said.

He visited the Catalyst Schools, run by the Christian Brothers in Chicago, to see what a faith-inspired charter school might look like.

"What I know of the community here — a lot will be from our parish community," he said. He said they will "appreciate a regular faith formation component for their kids."

Ripple Academy might begin its school day at 9 a.m. St. Jarlath Parish would offer an optional hour of faith formation at 8 a.m. Every student would be invited to participate, but there would be no requirement to attend.

"My sense is the majority of parents will want their children to be involved," Father Kappler said.

The charter school, the pastor said, is an opportunity, too, for the parish to reach out to other faith communities in the neighborhood.

Father Kappler envisions beginning the morning session with prayer and reflection, moving to a grade-level appropriate faith formation curriculum. Teachers might include religious, deacons and lay people.

At the end of the academy's school day, its after-school program would include the opportunity for students to be excused to go to the parish for preparation for first communion.

The closing of St. Jarlath School brought back many alumni and community members, and, said Father Kappler "a great sense of sadness."

When told of plans for a charter school in the space where Catholic education had been for the last 87 years, he said, there was a "deep sense of gratitude that we are continuing to offer education."

Father Kappler said he sees the mission of the school "empowering children to see their own value, dignity and goodness" aiding them to become "faith-filled, responsible participants in day-to-day life."

Pierre-Antoine, who has served as principal at two diocesan schools and with the University of Notre Dame's Alliance for Catholic Education, is taking a step outside traditional Catholic education.

"My only concern is securing a solid foundation for our students that will allow them to live lives that are centered on love and service," Pierre-Antoine said. "Ultimately, when you strip down the Bible and you strip down the Gospels, Christ left us two things: love and serve neighbor. I think in a public setting we can create a school that's centered on love and service while forming their minds."

 
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