By Doug Livingston
Beacon Journal education writer
When public schools closed for winter weather this month, the bus services they provided to private schools were also canceled.
“I simply laughed,” said Tom Acker, a pastor and school administrator at St. Joseph in Randolph Township. “There was barely a dusting of snow the first day. The second day they called off because it was cold.”
Acker, 84, took the day off to reconsider the Catholic school’s snow day policy.
“This is stupid. Why are we calling off school?” said Acker, who has led the Portage County school for less than a year. “How can I turn this into an opportunity?”
Acker has pledged to parents and parishioners that the doors to St. Joseph School will remain open regardless of the weather for the rest of the year.
Students, including children who go to the church but do not attend the school, are invited to attend an “opportunity day” at St. Joseph when surrounding schools take snow days.
It’s optional for students. Attendance will not be taken. And the school will still count the “opportunity day” toward its five calamity days allowed each year before additional lost time must be made up in the spring.
It’s part of a larger experiment as Acker shakes up the operation at the Portage County private school, which has seen enrollment severely decline in recent years.
In an ideal setting, Acker would have at least 17 students per teacher. With 112 students and 17 teachers, St. Joseph operates well below his goal.
Still, 112 students — up from 108 the year before — is a positive sign after losing about 10 students each year for nearly too long.
“If we had gone [below 100 students], that would have been the end of it,” said Acker, who was called in by the Diocese of Youngstown to “turn things around.”
His game plan includes opening up the school on snow days to students who attend public schools.
“It’s just an opportunity to get more students interested in our school,” he said. “I’m an experimentalist.”
It’s also an opportunity for parents and churchgoers to drop their children off somewhere safe when school is canceled.
Most importantly, it’s part of Acker’s marketing plan.
He’s trying to get the word out about how he’s made drastic changes in the school’s normal daily operation.
The biggest change is in what teachers teach, and how students learn.
Teachers in the K-8 school, with students entering as young as 3, no longer lead homeroom. Some general education is facilitated by a “teacher-mentor” — the teachers are largely not confined to a specific grade level.
Instead, teachers now give instruction to multiple grades and teach only the subject they feel most passionate about.
While the state encourages public schools to blend together subjects like math and English to accommodate waning resources, Acker is asking his teachers to focus only on what they love and nothing else.
In Katie Bragg’s math class, that means no language arts or American history, just mathematics.
“This is much more fun because I love math,” said Bragg, the 31-year teacher.
“That’s my niche,” said Jennifer Glendenning, another teacher who can now focus her passion for American history and science toward older students.
Limited only by the grade levels on their teaching certificates, educators at St. Joseph’s can take comfort in not having to reach outside their comfort zone.
The structural shift would cause inherent opposition at a public school, where teachers are contractually obligated to teach certain grades or subjects.
“We don’t have that problem,” said Acker, adding that public schools are “regimented by rule and regulation.”
“Private education can move quickly and grab the moment.”
Doug Livingston can be reached at 330-996-3792 or firstname.lastname@example.org.