By Nora Kerr
Interviews with staff and parents of SRB graduates on school culture, curriculum and academic rigor for preparing students for life after St. Robert Bellarmine.
Current 8th graders ready to take on high school
Giovanni Benincasa is a product of Catholic schools and went on to teach high school English at two of Chicago’s premier selective enrollment schools. He is also a father of 5. So when it was time to choose a school for his own kids, he was well versed in what a great school should provide. After an increasingly unsatisfactory experience at a local public school, he chose St. Robert Bellarmine for his elementary school-aged children.
“My son was getting older, and school was becoming less and less stimulating. He was on his way to checking out, failing science and doing poorly in his other core courses. There was no reason for that, but when you have over 30 kids packed into a classroom, there are limits to what you can do to engage kids in learning,” said Benincasa. “We brought him to St. Roberts and it became a completely different situation immediately. They gave him interesting, stimulating work and the attention that he needs. He’s now excelling and earning As. He is as excited about school as he used to be. Same kid!”
Smaller class sizes and teacher motivation make a big difference.
“Teachers are approaching the job as a vocation. They give students more than test prep. It’s a personalized education.”
While he has an appreciation for the elite and highly selective public high school options that Chicago provides, he also knows how competitive those entrance exams can be, and notes that St. Roberts can prepare your child for any high school option out there.
“By 8th grade, I want them to be in a position to choose, and you don’t have a choice if you’re not prepared to sit for those exams. What you need more than anything is equitable access to the best of the best, and you get that at St. Roberts.”
Peace of Mind
Jennifer Garces, mom of 3, also tried local public options, but came to St. Roberts after noticing a difference in classroom environment and school culture off the bat.
“I work 45 hours a week. When my kids are at school, I want to know they are being cared for as well as I would care for them. That they are being loved and nurtured.”
For the Garces family, academics are important, but peace of mind is priceless.
“St. Roberts is so far beyond a good education. It’s a place where they care about the children, their spirit, and their individual needs. I can’t say that enough about SRB.”
On Honors Reading
Kevin Fischer is one of the teachers behind our honors reading program, and explains that the difference between the curriculum comes down to pacing and approach.
“My goal for the end of the year is for the class to read a novel together. The kids really enjoy it. It’s a different pacing from short stories, but the same basic structure for analysis.”
Much of the analysis boils down to vocabulary, and for this, Fischer is a bit old school.
“Now it’s so easy to look up a word online, something we take for granted. So I have students do it the old-fashioned way. Learn to look things up alphabetically using a dictionary. The students learn antonyms and synonyms by using a thesaurus.”
These basic skills are critical for building a strong reading foundation, and a key to later success in school and life.
“There will always be words out there they are not going to know. I want them to know their options: use context clues, look it up, eliminate obvious wrong answers.”
The honors curriculum is so dense it can be tough to teach in a year. But after three years, Fischer has found his way around the program.
“We try to hit every genre: fiction, nonfiction, poetry, novel, historical fiction, expository text—the full gamut of different types of reading. They need to discriminate facts from opinions and learn to question.”
Additionally, Fischer brings a bit of his background in advertising to the classroom.
“I was a copywriter for 7 years, so we have an ad project each year. Students have to think up a product, market it, build a prototype and present it. It’s amazing what they can do with a little budget and a lot of creativity.”
Kevin Fischer and Ursula Kunath
Ursula Kunath also teaches honors level reading at St. Roberts.
“We move quickly, with an emphasis on nonfiction, and cover higher level strategies through enrichment and discussions.”
She especially enjoys the challenge of converting reading skeptics to book lovers.
“Kids that read have better vocabulary and have more at their fingertips. I want students to be lifelong learners.”
And it never hurts to laugh in the process.
I enjoy teaching with a bit of humor—it’s a great way not only to learn, but cope with life in general.”
On Honors Math
Sean Connor wears two teaching hats, running our honors math program while on staff teaching high school math at nearby DePaul College Prep. Principal Carrie Mijal welcomed his expertise to help advanced students ready for a more rigorous track to bridge the gap between 8th grade and freshman year.
“There was a group of kids hoping to skip algebra freshman year and take geometry right away in high school,” said Connor. “It puts them on a track to take AP calculus as seniors.”
But Honors math is more than just cramming algebra to pass a test. The curriculum teaches problem solving, critical thinking and collaboration. The mere existence of Connors at SRB shows a great deal of collaboration among area schools.
“It’s unique that SRB has a high school teacher. We have the largest school network of Catholic schools here in Chicago, and everyone is working together to make the system better. We can provide great services if we work together.”
They loved it so much, they became teachers.
Ursula Kunath teaches honors reading and social studies at St. Roberts, but before that, she was a parent of an SRB student.
“It’s a gem in this neighborhood,” said Kunath. “Here students learn to think past ‘all about me’ and find ways to be of service to others. The connection is made between academic success and Christian qualities of service and respect.”
She also admired how students were expected to work hard, and parents were invested.
“I was a parent here, involved with the Parents’ Association for many years.”
Her daughter thrived during her time here and now is a successful young woman in her career. Kunath attributes much of that success to the foundation that was set here at St. Roberts.
“This is a school that focuses on subject matter, but also work ethic.
You’ll get the information everywhere, but the work skills you develop will carry you the rest of your life.”
Ursula Kunath joined the school staff in 2005, teaching 6-8th grade.
“I love exposing kids to different types of reading—especially those who say they don’t like to read.”
With today’s emphasis on quick emails, texts and social media, Kunath says a solid foundation in the humanities is critical.
“We’ve gotten away from it. Students should be able to stand up and talk in front of the classroom, sit among their peers and express themselves in ways that are more complex than texting and ‘Instagramming.’ The keys to any profession are reading, comprehension, and communication.”
Kunath takes a personal approach to teaching.
“I talk to parents about their kids to see what they are in to and use their interests to hook them. If they sense you are interested in them, then they will be more engaged.”
Patti McNichols went from SRB parent to Kindergarten aide. Her daughter recently graduated from St. Roberts to attend one of Chicago’s selective enrollment high schools.
“Getting into this high school was a very overwhelming process. It’s almost like getting into college,” said McNichols.
St. Roberts was there to help along the way.
“I don’t know if it was more stressful for me or my daughter! The advanced classes at SRB prepared her for the test, while Carrie Mijal, the school principal, helped us through the application process.”
McNichols said the honors program gave her daughter much more than just a leg up for a high school entrance exam.
“She really enjoyed the advancement, the push and challenge to work harder. Teachers set the tone for life skills. Mrs. Kunath’s Social Studies Curriculum and Constitution test preparation, Mrs. Burzynski’s Science Curriculum and Science Fair experience, Mrs. Peters Reading Curriculum, especially having a term paper assignment, they all prepared her well for high school and gave her great life experiences.”
Now working in a Kindergarten classroom, McNichols sees the groundwork being set early on.
“I see it first hand! It’s amazing what our kids can do. What they are doing in Kindergarten I think I learned in 2nd grade!”
Patti McNichols and Kathy Ernst
Kathy Ernst was another SRB mom that became staff. She is a preschool aide and the school’s Development Director. She remembers when her son was young and they were touring schools, there was something about SRB that just felt different.
“I felt that this where I wanted to be. You just feel it. From the time you walk in the door, everybody is watching out for your child. It’s a community.”
She was originally interested in Catholic school for the sacraments and Christian traditions, but found much more—especially when her son needed help.
“He had some trouble reading and they addressed it right away. He was a great reader by the time he graduated.”
Now she adds, the school offers many accommodations to working parents, such as before and after-school care, sports programs, and enrichment options including a free Homework Club after school.
“Teachers stay a half hour to an hour after school to help with homework and answer questions. Sometimes students come just to stay here and talk. My son had a great experience. I don’t think he ever had a worry here.”
For the Ernst family, St. Roberts became much more than a school.
“It’s more than an education, it’s a home.”