Three Parochial Schools Merge as East Catholic School This Fall
St. Maurice in Forest Hills has taken on a new name and will welcome students from Word of God in Swissvale and Good Shepherd in Braddock Aug. 27—and parents for an orientation Aug. 29.
Sister Judith Stojhovic sits behind the stacks of paper on the desk as she talks to a staff member while trying to prepare the former St. Maurice School to welcome students next Monday as they enter the new East Catholic School.
"I am on such paper overload," the principal of the newly merged school in Forest Hills admits, smiling across the clutter. "You pull out your hair."
She describes the stacks of stored boxes of the desired items teachers gathered from the former Word of God and Good Shepherd schools as they closed their doors in June. Some of those boxes have already made their way to the teachers, as evidenced by the classrooms-in-progress down the glistening tile hallway.
The last classroom on the right, where upper math teacher Nancy Lepsch has desks neatly lined up, colorful posters on the walls and bulletin boards in place is what gives Sister Judith faith that everything will be okay, even though homeroom assignments might not be in place until last minute before school opens Aug. 27.
She even has a game plan in place for that, given that there are still students enrolling and a few moving to other schools that she's just learning about. The day will start with prayer in the church, then Sister Judith will have teachers call the students by name and take them to their new classrooms.
Then there are little annoyances, such as the school website. Sister Judith said although the correct information up is for East Catholic, for some reason the domain name change for the St. Maurice website did not go through, thus it still says http://stmauriceschool.org.
The work for the merger of St. Maurice, Word of God and Good Shepherd in Braddock began in the spring, after the Diocese of Pittsburgh announced the schools would combine as East Catholic School. Before school ended, groups of students came by grade levels to visit St. Maurice, meet teachers and other students and get familiar with the school.
To bring about a sense of unity, Sister Judith said a contest was held to pick school colors and a mascot.
After getting nominations from the three schools and putting the top choices to a vote, students selected an eagle as the mascot and chose red and white as school colors. The Parent Teacher Guild is working on getting each child a school T-shirt to help build pride in East Catholic.
As of last week, Sister Judith estimated East Catholic will be welcoming 350 students, up from the 230 pupils St. Maurice had last year. The school is still accepting enrollments for the new school year, so that number might change.
"We knew our capacity was 400," she said, noting that during her 16 years with the school, the peak enrollment was 389.
Bringing the three schools together is not without challenges. One of the good things is that all the schools used the same diocesan curriculum guidelines.
"The curriculum is the same," Sister Judith said. "The difference would be in what the expectations are. We're going to find out."
Those expectations of how students master the material might have been different between the schools, she said.
"Our philosophy is that you teach the child," she said. "You're really looking at what's the best way to do it. We realize that everyone learns differently."
That's why the school doesn't just focus on lectures but also on hands-on learning and integration of subject matter between subjects and teachers. Even with extracurricular activities, the new school will try to use some successful programs from each school, such as the Robotics Club from Word of God School.
Pulling the students, teachers, activities and resources from three schools has its advantages, such as the fact that each classroom will have a SMART Board after bringing them from the other two schools. The computer lab that existed at St. Maurice is now revamped with newer computers added to the mix.
There will also be an increase in the sports programs offered by the individual schools. The soccer and cross country programs have had to add an extra team this year with the influx of more students. Sister Judith said diocesan competition might change a bit with the school possibly being in a different section because of increased enrollment.
More students will have to take a bus to school with the merger. Sister Judith said, for instance, some students from the Swisshelm Park section of Pittsburgh actually walked to school at Word of God. They'll now have to be bused.
A parent orientation meeting is set for Wednesday, Aug. 29, at 7 p.m. The meeting will also focus on the Gospel value the school will select for the year, athletics and parents will get to meet with teachers to discuss policies on homework and behavior.
The new school is supported by a consortium of six parishes—St. Maurice in Forest Hills, Word of God and Madonna del Castello in Swissvale, Good Shepherd in Braddock, St. John Fisher in Churchill and St. Colman in Turtle Creek.
"We're a community and a community works together," Sister Judith said. "It's a challenge for everyone concerned with this because we are bringing together people who don't know each other. We want to try to make it a community where everyone feels a part of it."