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Education Department site visit highlights All Saints Catholic School innovation

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For more than 60 years, All Saints Catholic School in Manassas has welcomed thousands of students from pre-K through eighth grade. But last week was the first time the school hosted officials from the U.S. Department of Education — and school personnel were understandably excited.


“We seek out schools that have innovative practices and are successful,” said Aimee Viana, principal deputy assistant secretary in the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, who toured the school and participated in a “listening session” with a small group of parents, teachers and students.


Viana and associate Michael Chamberlain visited several classrooms and spoke with children at various grade levels about their studies ­­­— from the geography of Asia in a fifth-grade classroom to literary language in the Amelia Bedelia book series, in a second-grade class.


All Saints Principal David Conroy explained that faith formation is a primary focus, even while the school emphasizes “academic excellence in all things.”


The tour showcased both of those aspects. Visitors stopped to admire a brightly colored floor-to-ceiling “values mural” that decorates a long cinder block corridor with giant flowers, under a painted banner proclaiming words from Isaiah 58:11: “The Lord will guide you always … You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring.”


The tour also highlighted schoolwide initiatives in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), including classrooms equipped with ActivBoards, supersized interactive touchscreens that combine the benefits of a traditional blackboard or dry-erase whiteboard with those of a computer. Carts containing laptops for grades three through eight could be seen parked outside classrooms, ready for teachers when they want to use technology to enhance learning. For pre-K through second grades, classrooms use iPads.


Viana, a former Catholic school principal at a Department of Education Blue Ribbon School of Excellence in Raleigh, N.C., asked several questions about “differentiation,” which refers to instruction personalized to fit each student’s skills and learning needs.


“We like to highlight that one size does not fit all,” said Viana, who has served as executive director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics. Manassas has a growing Hispanic population, as does the nation overall. Hispanic students now represent more than a quarter of all U.S. students, according to the Pew Research Center.


Viana also asked about the benefits of the Virginia Education Improvement Scholarship Tax Credit Program for families. The program provides individuals and businesses a 65 percent tax credit when they make a monetary donation to support low-income students through approved scholarship funds.


The Diocese of Arlington Scholarship Foundation is approved under the program and provided $2 million in tuition assistance to students in diocesan schools last year, said Joseph E. Vorbach, superintendent of schools, who participated in the tour. The diocese has 50 Catholic schools serving more than 17,000 students from pre-K through high school.


Conroy said the program is a significant source of funding for All Saints, which currently receives more than $100,000 to support scholarships for 25 students. “We don’t want funding to be an impediment,” he said.  


Legislation has been introduced in the Virginia General Assembly to repeal the tax credit, which could significantly impact diocesan scholarships.


At the listening session, Viana asked participants to share, in their own words, “what makes this school special and why you chose it, so I can impart that back” to other education officials.


Parent Joan Coleman said she values that “the faculty and staff really pay attention to the individual child and their individual needs. They assess and challenge” each child at his or her own level.


Other parents agreed, adding that they appreciated teachers’ efforts to ensure that all students are successful. Several parents told Viana that although they don’t receive scholarships, they do support the scholarship program, so other families can receive the benefits of a Catholic education, even those who can’t afford the tuition.


Others participating in the visit included Father Lee R. Roos, All Saints pastor, who said he spent 10 years in the computer industry before going to the seminary; Renee White, assistant superintendent for enrollment and marketing; Manassas Mayor Hal Parrish and Theresa Coates Ellis, a Manassas city council member.


After the session, Viana said it was clear to her from her visit that “the experience provided is highly valued by students, faculty and staff. They value the choice and opportunity they have to participate as part of this community — and the commitment is evident.” She was scheduled to visit two Manassas public schools later that day.


Miller can be reached at Leslie.Miller@catholicherald.com.


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2020