December 27, 2006
Just one year after St. John’s University forged a unique
partnership with St.
Brigid School, a low- to middle-income archdiocesan elementary
school located in Manhattan’s East Village, the students’
standardized test scores have surged. The partnership has arguably
saved the school, which two years ago was on the brink of
This March, St. Brigid students from grades 2 through 8
completed the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, which measures elementary
school students’ aptitude for vocabulary, reading and math, among
other subjects. When compared with corresponding scores registered
last year, the students’ 2006 scores suggest a significant increase
in learning proficiency. In the vocabulary category, for example,
the students’ average score increased by 32 percentage points; in
the reading category, 17 percentage points; and in the combined
math section, five percentage points.
The rise in test scores is attributable to a partnership sprung
recently by St. John’s and St. Brigid at the request of the
Archdiocese of New York. Two years ago, as the elementary school
was primed to shut down due to flagging enrollment and poor student
performance, the archdiocese’s Secretary of Education, Catherine
Hickey, Ph.D., offered Jerrold Ross, Ph.D. ,
Dean of The School of Education, a chance to resurrect it.
“The school was hemorrhaging money and losing students,”
recalls Ross, who nevertheless accepted Hickey’s challenge,
agreeing to form a St. John’s/St. Brigid partnership. Through
preliminary meetings with archdiocese personnel and St. Brigid
Principal Suzanne Katusin, Ross and Hickey immediately focused on
two goals: improving the students’ math and literacy skills and
raising the school’s attendance.
Ross drafted Associate Professor of Education Fran Guastello,
Ed.D., to address the literacy problem and Associate Professor of
Education Regina Mistretta, Ed.D., to tackle the math
problem. To combat the dismal enrollment, Ross turned to Senior
Vice President for Enrollment, Marketing and Communications Brenda
Majeski, then Vice President of Marketing and Communications, and
members of her staff. Ross and Hickey also formed an 11-person
committee of experts in public relations, fundraising and
school/community relations to oversee the partnership — the only in
existence between a university and an elementary school in the
Archdiocese of New York, according to Ross.
Guastello and Mistretta, both former educators in the Catholic
school system, began traveling to St. Brigid to conduct weekly
modeling sessions (whereby teachers observe the St. John’s
professors teaching a class) and bimonthly evening focus groups
(whereby teachers, parents and students discuss learning strategies
in an informal setting).
Teaching the Teachers
“We’re trying to get the teachers to teach in a manner that
fosters communication, and we want children to be able to verbalize
their thinking,” says Mistretta. “We want them not only to give the
correct answer, but to explain the correct answer and the multiple
methods of arriving at it — why do you keep the two and carry the
one, for instance.”
According to Mistretta, the teachers — who, in most cases,
earned just six subject-area credits as college students — have
been “very receptive” to learning the cutting-edge teaching trends.
“They’re beginning to talk to the students about their thinking,
trying to figure out what’s going on in their heads,” she says.
The East Village elementary school also has benefited from a
marketing overhaul initiated by Majeski and the St. John’s Office
of Marketing and Communications. Collaboratively, Katusin and St.
John’s marketing representatives have produced a St. Brigid
recruitment campaign, a website, a brochure, entranceway banners
and new letterhead. As a result, 70 of St. Brigid’s 179 current
students are new this year, and there is no longer talk of
“The word is getting out about how wonderful the school is
thanks in part to our association with St. John’s,” says Katusin,
noting that the school now boasts a new Latin program, new art
programs and a new choir.
Dean Ross: “We Have a
Though they are full-time professors at St. John’s,
Mistretta and Guastello are accustomed to commuting to New York
elementary schools, teaching contemporary methods to teachers.
Three years ago, the associate professors won a vendor contract
sponsored by the Bureau for Non-Public Schools titled Project TIE
(Training Innovative Educators). The contract — originally totaling
almost $300,000 and recently renewed (through 2008) for close to
$400,000 — has enabled the two St. John’s professors to reform the
pedagogical practices within 17 New York City schools, Catholic and
The St. Brigid project, however, has been funded entirely by St.
John’s and the archdiocese.
“We do this pro bono because it’s part of the mission of the
University,” says Ross. “We want to underscore what needs to be a
commitment of St. John’s as a Catholic school; namely that we have
a responsibility to other Catholic schools.”
The dean’s philosophy has been exemplified through other
initiatives as well. Three years ago, the University teamed up with
Sadlier Inc., the largest publisher of Catholic school text books,
to form the Catholic Schools Principals Institute. Twice a year,
100 Catholic school principals gather on the St. John’s Queens
campus to share ideas about the direction and future of their
educational system. Last month, St. John’s presented Sadlier
Chairman Frank Sadlier Dinger Jr. ’71 M.B.A. with a 2006 LEAD
Award, given to University alumni who have demonstrated significant
achievement within their fields.