SMLF grants help fund computers for St. Mary School

Chromebooks for elementary students in Oak Ridge, new PA system to improve education programs

By Dan McWilliams

St. Mary School in Oak Ridge held a celebration May 4 to recognize the St. Mary’s Legacy Foundation of East Tennessee for its two grants totaling $40,965, which helped the school provide Google Chromebook computers and purchase a new public-address system.

The grant paid for Chromebooks for each third- through fifth-grader, but more importantly signified that every student at the school now has a computer.

“Every student in first through eighth grade has a Chromebook. How awesome is that?” said Sister Marie Blanchette, OP, St. Mary principal.

Bishop Richard F. Stika was among the dignitaries helping the school celebrate. The bishop renewed acquaintances with his pal of many years, Herbert the corn snake, in one of the science classrooms.

“One of my favorite parts of a day is to visit the schools, and I love coming to St. Mary’s, first of all to see you and then to see my friend Herbert the snake, who I’ve missed,” Bishop Stika told an outdoor assembly.

Also attending the assembly of first- through eighth-graders and receiving a tour of the school beforehand were Anderson County Mayor and former St. Mary School parent Terry Frank; Sister Mary Marta Abbott, RSM, diocesan superintendent of schools; Paul Simoneau, diocesan vice chancellor for administration and director of the Office of Justice and Peace; John Deinhart, a St. Mary parent, diocesan director of Stewardship and Strategic Planning, and staff director for the Legacy Foundation; Father Brent Shelton, pastor of St. Mary Parish; Father Dustin Collins, St. Mary associate pastor; Oak Ridge Police Chief Jim Akagi; and school parent Kevin Corbett.

Fourth-grader Tennison Barnes did the honors on a ribbon-cutting outside one of the classrooms using the Chromebooks.

The first grant, of $29,200, helped support a wireless infrastructure as well as provide the Chromebooks. The second grant, of $11,765, allowed the school to replace an outdated PA system that posed a dangerous security risk when office staffers were unable to hear teachers trying to communicate with them. The new system also includes a lockdown alarm and digital security cameras.
Mr. Deinhart called the grants “a really important investment by the foundation, to invest in our Catholic schools.”

“The foundation supports health, education, and charity efforts,” he said. “This clearly falls in one of our strategic initiatives, to help support, through this gift of technology and through the security investment, the gift of education to these kids, and you saw the reception that they gave, knowing that we’re helping to support this great school and this great asset we have in Oak Ridge.”

Since its creation in 2011, the St. Mary’s Legacy Foundation has provided more than $3 million to benefit charitable, education, and health programs in the region. The St. Mary grant was just what the bishop had in mind when he established the Legacy Foundation.

“Exactly, because the foundation is to support spiritual formation, education, and charity, and this is an excellent example of just that,” Bishop Stika said. “Just visiting with the young men and women here in the school, the impact that these computers have on the students and on the faculty just enlarges the capacity of what they can do.”

First-grade teacher Katie Schreiber talked of the impact of the Chromebooks on her students at St. Mary.

“We’ve had the opportunity to personalize or differentiate the education for the instruction of every student,” she said. “There are a variety of programs in math, language arts, reading, phonics—we’re able to assess where each student is and then the program’s tailored to their needs, so we can challenge all students and provide everything from intervention to enrichment.

“The result of having the Chromebooks in the classrooms—our language-arts skills have increased, our math scores have increased dramatically, and we’ve seen a forward acceleration in all curriculum and a greater coverage of material this year. I actually finished my regular first-grade curriculum material early and have been able to challenge and go beyond first grade.”

Sister Marie Blanchette said that “we are seeing the fruit” of every student’s having a Chromebook.

“The students are very much more engaged in classes,” she said. “They’re able to work at their level. They can be challenged. There can be remediation. The students are really ramping up their editing skills and producing much better work, because the work is still fresh when they have a change to edit it—they’re not tired of the document.

“One of our groups just did a presentation, and having the technology to do a presentation in class just really helped boost their confidence, and so it’s great to see the children learning and sharing that learning and not being inhibited to be in front of their classmates.”

Sister Marie Blanchette said she is “extremely grateful” to the Legacy Foundation for its grants.

“We could not have done this,” she said. “It would have taken us several more years to save dollars and pennies from box tops and Kroger Rewards to be able to purchase the Chromebooks. It’s a real blessing to have the Chromebooks for each student.”

An unexpected roof repair forced the school to use money it had set aside for the Chromebooks, Sister Marie Blanchette said.

“Last year because of the winter we had to replace our roof during spring break, so it was $107,000, which was not budgeted for,” she said, “but it was absolutely necessary, and so we had to do that immediately, which put the Chromebooks on hold.”

At the outdoor assembly, Bishop Stika thanked the Dominican Sisters and other teachers at St. Mary.

“As I’ve said so often, a good school is a great school when you have wonderful teachers who give their life of service to the students, not only sharing math and science and history and geography and all those wonderful subjects, but also sharing faith, because we are a Catholic school,” he said. “Everybody involved here at St. Mary’s makes this a wonderful place where the presence of Jesus really is lived out on a daily basis.”

The occasion at St. Mary put the bishop in one of his favorite settings.

“I love kids,” he said. “I always wanted to teach high school and never was able to do that in my life.”

Students made paper Chromebooks to present to the dignitaries attending the assembly, books filled with thank-you notes from students and a teacher.

“St. Mary’s is so much more than a building,” Sister Marie Blanchette told the assembly. “What I love telling people is, we can quote the great numbers about our Iowa test scores, about the number of science-fair winners at the regional level, about our math competitions, our choir, our athletics—we can quote lots of numbers, but the true picture of who St. Mary’s is are the children and the teachers in front of you.

“There is such a beautiful interaction between the students and the adults in this school, and to me that is the heart of what St. Mary’s is. I wish that I could bottle that and take it to every school that I know.” ■

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