By Msgr. Francis Carbine
Special to the CS&T

How many Catholic elementary schools require ballroom dancing in the curriculum? And have peer mediation assisted by 14 trained student mediators? And stress courtesy in the daily assembly?

How many schools offer a rigorous academic program for 11 months of the year on a daily schedule that runs from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.? And require Saturday classes five times a year?

How many conduct classes 225 days each year when the state requires only 180 days? And demand 585 more hours of instruction than a traditional classroom? And give eighth graders laptop computers to be used in class and then taken with them upon graduation?

The answer is La Salle Academy, conducted in the traditions of the Christian Brothers and Sisters of St. Joseph. This academy is located at 1434 North Second St. in Philadelphia’s Kensington district. La Salle Academy is the only “Nativity-Miguel” school in Philadelphia. This independent Catholic grade school is owned and significantly supported by the 37-member board of trustees. This school, however, is neither a parish school nor a school for special education.

A few years ago, Father Herbert Sperger, a former pastor of St. Michael Parish, recognized the need for a school to serve children whose life opportunities were at risk from poverty and other factors. He also realized that the former parish convent, with major adaptations, well might be utilized.

Opened in 2003, the academy, with grades three through eight, received Middle States accreditation in 2010. Each teacher is committed to a nine-hour school day and to an academic year that runs from the Tuesday after Labor Day until July 31.

All teachers have master’s degrees, and their work is supported by a computer instructor, a full-time fine arts teacher, a social worker and volunteers. Denis Block, a volunteer from 2007 to 2009, served as gym teacher and softball coach, and tutored chess and homework clubs.

As a volunteer, Block is not alone. For example, this year 30 students from La Salle College High School came each Tuesday to their “brother school” to tutor. Volunteers from many schools are welcomed by students at the academy.

The founding and present president of this 88-student school is Sister Jeanne McGowan, a Sister of St. Joseph. “I have taught grades one through eight, served as principal for 14 years in West Philadelphia, and earned a master’s degree in education and administration from Boston College,” she said. “My final credential is life.”

Teresa Diamond, principal and formerly a principal in North Philadelphia, holds a master’s degree in education and a certificate in school administration. She came to La Salle Academy in 2005.

Megan Thompson, mother of three and a former teacher, for the past five years has been development director for the academy. She has a bachelor’s degree in political science and a master’s degree in urban education and policy.

The academy’s mission statement affirms that parents and caregivers of students must “desire” but cannot afford a Catholic education. One example of this “desire” is participation in three conferences at which particular goals for students are clarified.

The application process requires an interview with parents (or guardians) and students; a visit by a social worker to the school the student is attending; scores from achievement testing, and complete financial information – salary, food stamps, welfare supplements, etc.

In effect, application for enrollment is also application for a $12,000 grant, which is the operational cost per student. Tuition per child is $200. Students’ average annual income for a family of four is less than $16,000. The annual report for 2010 identifies a total of $1,548,000 for expenditures and transfer to endowment fund.

The make-up of the students body is: Catholic (67 percent), Latino (47 percent), African-American (39 percent), caucasian (14 percent), single-parent homes (62 percent), one parent incarcerated (23 percent), eligible for free or reduced lunch program (96 percent).

As evidenced by the high schools the 2011 graduates will be attending, La Salle Academy is a profile in excellence in Catholic urban education.

“Our miracle is that we opened in 2003 with no money, endowment or alumni,” Sister McGowan said. “Our Catholic school supports the human and Christian education of the young. Our goal is ‘opening minds, changing hearts.’ I would want every child to receive the education that we are giving!”

Msgr. Carbine is pastor emeritus of St. Charles Borromeo Parish in Bensalem and volunteers at St. Francis Inn.