Ascension inspires excellence

First-grader Mario Williams walks down the main hall at Ascension Catholic School, where expectations and values are posted on the wall.  Photo by David Pierini

First-grader Mario Williams walks down the main hall at Ascension Catholic School, where expectations and values are posted on the wall. Photo by David Pierini

The private school offers affordable tuition, holistic support and above average test scores.

By Kenzie O'Keefe | Editor

Ascension Catholic School students have some of the highest test scores in North Minneapolis, but their educational experience offers families far more than proficiency. 

Despite being a 120-year-old, private, Catholic school, its K-8 student body looks like most others in the area. Most “scholars” live within five miles of the school, are of color, and qualify for free and reduced lunch. Only a third identify as Catholic. But unlike nearby public and charter options, more than half of their eighth graders test at or above grade level.

“It’s such a bright spot in this community. ...Ascension represents what North Minneapolis should be,” said Jean Hawkins-Koch, mother of Isabel, an incoming first grader at the school. 

How do they do it? Principal Benito Matias says there’s no magic formula: “Every scholar is different, and every year is different.” He says one of many elements that contribute to the school’s success is its teachers: “Having great teachers who work hard, who do a great job working with scholars, is critical.”

One of those teachers is Jill Miller, who is beginning her third year teaching fifth grade at the school. Previously she taught third grade for 29 years in St. Paul. She says she was hesitant to apply for the job at Ascension because of her Master’s degree and decades of experience – qualifications that typically cost schools more. But Miller said Ascension welcomed her expertise and pays her accordingly for it. “That’s what they wanted – people with experience, the knowledge on how to do it. It was meant to be,” she said. “The kids and the families all expect and want the best for their children. Then the community supports it,” she said.

Matias says another crucial element of the school’s success is its emphasis on measuring proficiency “alongside the conversation about growth.” Students are tested multiple times during the school year, and each student’s results are evaluated and responded to individually. “We work very hard to make sure we understand where scholars are and some of the best ways that we might be able to pull them forward and bring them along," said Matias. 

Ticiea Fletcher’s 10 year old daughter Logan Shields has attended the school for three years. During that time Shields’ reading and math skills have improved. After struggling at her previous North Minneapolis school, Ascension is “where she made the turnaround,” said Fletcher. 

Though Ascension is a private school, it comes without the hefty tuition price tag typical of comparable institutions. The school offers some form of scholarship to all its students. It costs $7400 per year to educate an Ascension pupil, yet published tuition is a fraction of that at $1400. Matias says the average student pays much less: on average just $200 per year; the rest comes from individual, corporate, and foundation donors. “It’s always been a perspective of both the parish and the school that we don’t ever want to turn a family away due to their inability to pay,” he said. 

The decision to charge tuition at all – when it’s such a small piece of the actual cost of attendance – is indicative of the school’s attitude that it requires intentionality, responsibility, and communal hard work to enable students to succeed. Matias says charging tuition gives his families “skin in the game.” He says opportunities are treated differently when “we feel like they’re given to us versus feeling perhaps like we’re contributing to that benefit we’re receiving.” In addition to tuition, all families are required to contribute volunteer hours at the school. 

The school offers more than justfinancial support to its students. Its partnerships with organizations like the Northside Achievement Zone (NAZ), Catholic Charities, and Ready, Set, Smile offer students and their families additional psychological, medical, and academic supports for a holistic support experience. “The school acts like a family. If you ever have any issues you can go to them and address them and they’ll try to push you in a direction,” said Anita Banks, mother of Jeremiah Russell, a seventh grader. In addition to the school’s supportive services, Banks says she also appreciates that educators have “control here in the building.”

Despite the schools’ success, Matias has a humble attitude. “If you think you’ve arrived, there’s probably a pretty good chance that you haven’t.” He says considering the way the school measures student success from a holistic "whole child" perspective is among his top priorities for this school year.

Kenzie O'KeefeComment