St. Clement’s inclusivity part of turnaround
By Patricia McGeever
For The Catholic Telegraph
Catholic grade schools that want to boost their enrollments can take a page out of the lesson book used by St. Clement in St. Bernard. For years, the school on Vine Street was in danger of closing as attendance dwindled. But slowly and steadily enrollment has been growing. Last year, St. Clement had 154 students. It began this school year with 201. Thirty-three of the students are Hispanic. At St. Clement, there is one goal: to be inclusive and welcoming for everyone.
“That’s our mission statement. That’s our Franciscan heritage,” said Principal Jeff Eiser. “But, that includes not just Hispanic students. We have about 35 percent African-American, 20 percent Hispanic and 45 percent, I always call them our German and Irish immigrants from St. Bernard.”
This year, there are 17 special needs students on scholarships. As St. Clement’s student body has changed in size and ethnicity, its teachers have had to change with it.
“My first year teaching here I only had 10 students and all 10 were from this neighborhood and all of their parents were still married,” said second grade teacher Lauren Clements, who started at the school nine years ago. “The very next year is when the voucher program started and kids were coming in just not as prepared and it definitely takes patience.”
That patience pays off when teachers see progress. They work on the whole student, sometimes having to teach very basic social skills in addition to their studies.
“One of the things I love about this school is we work together as a community and we’re all looking out for all the students,” said Donna Muchmore, and eighth grade social studies teacher. “You can really get a sense of it with some students that this is where they feel safest. This might be the best part of their day.”
The recent growth of Hispanic students has been beneficial for St. Clement. But it’s paid off for the families as well. Many deeply religious Hispanic families don’t realize that their children can receive a Catholic education. In Latin America, only the affluent can attend Catholic schools.
When Jeff Eiser came to St. Clement as principal four years ago, he brought his best resource with him: his wife Rosie. Latina, Spanish-speaking and the school’s volunteer librarian, Rosie also serves as chief translator and point-person for the parents of Hispanic students. It has taken time, but she’s been able to establish a connection and gain the trust of the families and they in turn have spread the word about St. Clement.
“That’s what we wanted to do as a ministry as a couple,” explained Eiser of his and his wife’s work.
“Having her here is such a gift to make them feel welcome and comfortable,” added Clements. “We do our best,” she said of all the English-speaking staff, “but there’s a language barrier sometimes. It’s so helpful to have Rosie’s voice.”
Franciscan Sister Ann Vonder Meulen belongs to the parish and teaches at the school. She worked as a missionary in Papua New Guinea and knew when she returned stateside she wanted to work in a multi-cultural environment. She didn’t even have to leave her own parish to find that diversity.
“Initially I had almost all Hispanic kids,” said Sister Ann. Then we started bringing in more kids with learning disabilities and special needs. Then I started working more with them.” Sister Ann said the students are the biggest ambassadors for the school.
“My own kids go to school here and I think that’s a huge benefit to my own children to be in a school that’s diverse and not just with ethnicity but economically and learning disabilities,” said Clements. “They have friends from all kinds of different neighborhoods and that’s how I want them to grow up knowing that’s what the world is like.”
St. Clement draws students from 17 different zip codes. It is a parish school but so far this year, has not had to rely on the parish at all for money. Eiser says in early January, he received a couple of checks totaling $5000.00 from parishioners who wanted the money to go toward tuition for a student in need. Once a month, the school will have a program or a presence at Mass on Sunday.
This is Jeff Eiser’s second career. He’s a former sheriff’s deputy who retired after 29 years with the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Department, many of which he spent in administration. Bored with retirement, Eiser went back to school and earned a master’s degree in educational administration from Xavier University. He taught for a year at St. James of the Valley in Wyoming before coming to St. Clement. He knows that for some of these kids, he’s the only male role model they have. He says all the children, no matter where they live, are taught to respect God, self, others and all things. Rosie says the children need to know that the teachers have faith in them and they can be successful if they work hard.
“All of us, when we sit down and talk about these kids, it’s one of those things where we may not see the difference today”, said Rosie Eiser. “We may not see it tomorrow but down the road we have students who come back and say we miss St. Clement.”
This article originally appeared in the February 2014 print edition of The Catholic Telegraph