By Michael Rizzo & Jessica Easthope
WHITESTONE — The start of the new school year for St. Mel’s Catholic Academy in Whitestone was not just the first day of studies but the continued expansion of academics with the addition of a new fifth-grade class.
It’s the second year in a row they were able to add a new class. The academy was slated to close after the 2019-2020 academic year, but the parish convinced the diocese to allow it to restructure as an early childhood center serving students in nursery through third grade.
Last year, the academy added a fourth-grade class, and this year, 100% of those 13 fourth graders make up the new fifth-grade class.
“I see this as a major step in the right direction,” Principal Amy Barron said about St. Mel’s expansion with the eventual aim to add a sixth, seventh and eighth grade in the future. “The fact that we are one step closer is huge.”
The academy has seen positive results in maintaining enrollment. Barron, a parishioner at St. Camillus-St. Virgilius in Rockaway Park, cited high retention rates for students, especially in the pre-K through first-grade classes, as a positive for future growth.
New for this year’s fifth graders is the addition of specialized teachers in English language arts, science, and math. This new structure for learning is no problem for fifth grader Marissa Muccio.
“It can kind of get boring with just one teacher,” the soon-to-be 10-year-old said. “This way, we get new teachers, teaching in different ways.”
Marissa’s mother, Beth, couldn’t be happier that the school added the new class so students like her daughter can continue their studies there.
“It shows continuity. It shows the students they’re not missing anything,” she said. “They’re with their friends. The stability is reassuring.”
The students will also continue using an online learning system, The Flying Classroom, to build their science, technology, engineering, and math skills, which Barron said was in line with the school’s mission to “give them a foundation as critical thinkers and leaders.”
Albert Santangelo’s nine-year-old son Franco is another fifth-grader at St. Mel’s. The senior Santangelo said keeping his son at a Catholic academy was important: “The personal care we get here can’t be matched.”
Franco said he was already having fun seeing all his friends again but knows the new grade will be different.
“I know it will be harder to do all the work this year,” he said.
Mrs. Amy Turturro, a St. Mel’s parishioner, is the fifth-grade homeroom teacher, a role she’s reprising from the fourth grade.
“I’m excited. We’re excited,” she said. “It’s great the parish kept the school going and growing. It’s good for the community. It speaks to us as a family.
The first day of the school saw 103 students in kindergarten through fifth grade, along with their parents, begin arriving at 7:50 a.m. to be greeted, seemingly each by name, by Barron outside the building. Then, they funneled into the school cafeteria to be met by St. Mel’s pastor, Father Joseph Fonti. Another 99 students in 3-K and pre-K gathered separately in another part of the school.
Father Fonti described the return of the students as a “beautiful sight” and offered a prayer and blessing. He said that while everyone might be a little anxious, he asked them all to stay focused on their friendship with God and each other. After a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, the students were off to their respective classrooms.
Just before leading her students to their new classroom, Turturro was asked what her overall lesson plan was. After a moment of thought, she said it was “to grow their minds and faith.” She then added that she had told her students they were special now as the school’s upperclassmen.
It was a comment not lost on Marissa Muccio, who said it means a lot to be a fifth grader.
“We’re the role models now for the younger kids,” she said.