A Refuge of Learning
Rewards and heartaches—but more successes than you can count—mark the school days of immigrant students and a devoted faculty and staff at St. Frances Cabrini Academy in St. Louis
It’s 7:15 in the morning and my first-graders have begun to arrive. Some go directly to the cafeteria, where breakfast is served daily, and others make their way to my classroom, where the first work of the day is waiting at their desks. Soon it is time for morning prayer, recitation of our school creed, and the Pledge of Allegiance. And then: “Good morning, first-graders!” I intone. “I’m glad you’re here!” “Good morning, Mrs. Torrington! We’re glad you’re here!” they respond. And thus our day is under way.
Most mornings I do indeed feel glad to be in my classroom with these twenty-five pupils; some days I need a gentle reminder of how grateful I am to teach at St. Frances Cabrini Academy and how special our community is.
Situated in the south area of the city of St. Louis, surrounded by a large urban park, a busy multicultural shopping and dining corridor, and a thriving Hispanic neighborhood, the academy was founded in 2003 on the site of St. Wenceslaus Parish as the result of a consolidation of several parishes and schools in the area. Our name was chosen to honor the life and work of Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini, who is remembered for her efforts in education and holistic care and for her special mission ministering to immigrant and refugee families.
Diversity—Gift and Challenge
Most of our nearly 200 kindergarten-through-eighth-grade students come from families who have recently emigrated from one of fifteen different countries, including Mexico, Burma (Myanmar), Vietnam, Kenya, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Haiti, Nicaragua, Senegal, Sudan, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, and Republic of the Congo. Other students are African American, Caucasian, or multiracial. About two-thirds of them are Catholic; others are Buddhist, Muslim, Orthodox, Baptist, Methodist, or Pentecostal. The homes of students are in seventeen different Zip Codes. Ninety-five percent of our families receive tuition assistance, and eighty-six percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.
This diverse student body is a gift and poses challenges. It is not unusual for four or five different languages to be spoken by the families of the students in a single classroom. Many of our kindergarten students arrive on the first day of school with little or no functional English. While the children gain language fluency quickly (“recess” and “lunch” are among the first words they understand), it can sometimes be a struggle to communicate effectively with non-English-speaking families.
I have worked alongside a translator interpreting three different Burmese dialects at once for a group of non-English-speaking parents. I have to trust that my message is getting through, even when, following a couple minutes of interpretation, the translator and parents enjoy a hearty laugh together over something that I didn’t realize was humorous at all!
The newest of our immigrant and refugee families are still struggling to assimilate the culture of this very different place to which they have come. (“Mrs. Torrington,” asked Minh*, a serious little girl, listening with some confusion to our discussion of October holidays, “this ‘Halloween’—what is it?”)
These efforts at cultural assimilation are touchingly evident at Christmastime. For our annual Christmas music program, families are asked to send their children “dressed in their best.” My first-graders have arrived wearing traditional Burmese ankle-length skirts, brightly colored African dress, Vietnamese silk tunics, professional soccer jerseys, Mexican fiesta apparel, “church clothes,” their fathers’ too-long neckties, school uniforms, ill-fitting hand-me-downs, and hastily purchased thrift store finds. Most unforgettable—making me smile and touching my heart with each remembering—was little Ousmane* proudly sporting a head-to-toe Nutcracker Suite soldier uniform. These diverse interpretations of “dressing in their best” blend to create a beautifully colorful, multicultural holiday mosaic.
A Priceless Support System
A team of staff members works daily to make a difference in the lives of our students. Services include ELL (English language learner) classes, speech and occupational therapy, psychotherapy, academic and psychological testing provided by a special education outreach program, regular help from a learning consultant, and the support of a Title I remedial math and language arts program.
A full-time social worker oversees these services and seeks out community resources to aid our families. Regular volunteers assist teachers in the classroom, and teacher aides make it possible for us to diversify learning for our students. An active school board—composed of local educators, business leaders, our pastor-designate, and parent representatives—works to formulate and oversee policies designed to promote school success for every student.
And succeed they do. Nearly all of our eighth-grade graduates gain admission to the high school at the top of their list. After high school, many of our students continue to enjoy academic success. Thiri*, a Burmese student I taught at age five (she skipped kindergarten and was so tiny that her feet didn’t touch the floor when she sat at her desk) is now preparing to enter a local university on scholarship to study biological sciences.
Healthy children learn better and function more successfully in the classroom, so the physical well-being of our students is vitally important. In addition to our school breakfast program, a hot lunch and a fresh fruit or vegetable snack are provided free of charge daily, and a large number of our students eat dinner at Cabrini before returning home to their families. These measures help address food insecurity, which is a very real stressor for some of our students. My first-graders sometimes carefully save their afternoon snack, knowing they may be hungry later that evening, or their special-occasion cookie for a little sibling or for Mama, because “this is her favorite kind!”
A partnership with nurses from a local children’s hospital helps keep our students on track with their vaccinations, ensures that they receive annual hearing and health screenings, and assists in meeting the medical needs of students. Our students are able to receive free eye exams and glasses through our Eye Thrive vision van program, and students whose families have limited access to dental care attend the biannual Give Kids a Smile dental clinic where they can receive free preventative and restorative dental services. Our participation in the dental program grew out of our need to find solutions to the often-devastating condition of some of our children’s teeth. One of my first-graders, Fabienne*, had a badly abscessed tooth and would put her head down on her desk and cry from the pain before finally falling asleep.
The easing of the COVID-19 pandemic has allowed us to bring back some of the many after-school activities our students enjoy. A robotics group, art club, ballroom dance program, and our band are thriving again, and our doors have opened for our annual Halloween party and Christmas program, game nights and playground play dates. Upper-division students enjoy overnight outdoor education trips to a nearby state park, and our eighth-graders look forward to an end-of-year day of fun at an interactive children’s museum. Our sports program, headed by dedicated parent volunteers, offers soccer, volleyball, basketball, and track opportunities to our students.
One of my favorite activities with my students is a field trip to a neighborhood park. Some of our children have no chance to play in parks; their parents’ long work hours and concerns over safety prevent them from enjoying this “luxury.” At the end of the school year it becomes evident how special this trip is to the students. When asked to think of a dream place to take a vacation, many of them name this local park.
Faith and Formation
Although Cabrini Academy students are widely diverse in their faith backgrounds, we are first and foremost a Catholic school and we offer a solid program of Catholic faith formation. Weekly masses, our vibrant sacrament preparation program, and opportunities for community service create a rich environment in which our students’ faith can grow and flourish. All-school prayer assemblies mark special days and seasons in the Church, and our newly renovated chapel offers an environment conducive to quiet prayer. Even our youngest students are taught that what unites us spiritually is of greater importance than that which differentiates us. Listening to our religiously diverse kindergarten and first-grade students lustily sing “Let us build the city of God” leaves no doubt that a little bit of that city is being built right here in St. Louis.
To provide all of these benefits and services to our Cabrini population requires financial means well beyond what tuition payments provide. We are blessed to have a cohort of dedicated financial donors who make our daily operations possible and allow us to continue to dream of new possibilities for our students. Our annual auction is a major source of financial support, and those who believe fervently in our special mission here at Cabrini remember our students, teachers, and staff with generous donations throughout the year. One large extended family from the St. Louis area provides our students with fresh produce, grocery store gift cards, craft materials, and wrapped presents at Christmas time. Some of our families depend on these gifts to make the holidays bright for their children.
Dealing Lovingly with Trauma-based Fears
Teaching at Cabrini, like teaching any children anywhere, can be difficult, exhausting and, at times, heart-rending. Addressing the effects of trauma is an important part of the day’s work. Our children have some very real trauma-based fears—of police officers, gunshots, big dogs, sirens, even bad weather for children who once lived in flimsy refugee camp shelters.
Emergency drill training includes a “reverse evacuation” procedure for moving children quickly and safely inside from the playground or other outdoor area. When they hear the whistle blast, students know to move quickly toward the crosswalk, where they will be guided across the street and into the building.
Several years ago, a domestic incident involving gunfire broke out close to our playground. Instead of running toward safety, as we had practiced, most of our children ran toward the playground fence nearest the gunfire. When debriefed later, many told us they were running to see if their parents had been shot. A few were inconsolable until they were allowed to call their parents.
Faculty tenure varies. Some teachers stay a year or two; others are here for the long haul. A beloved Cabrini priest used to say “Cabrini teachers could teach anywhere, but not just any teacher could teach at Cabrini.” It does indeed take a village to teach our children, and we rely on the care and concern of our fellow teachers, the ready and willing help of the support staff, and the wise and generous guidance of principal Caroline Koetting. And there are rewards: the hugs and smiles of our youngest charges, the satisfaction of watching our upper division students grow and blossom, and the heartfelt appreciation expressed by their parents.
Another Day When Barriers Fall
It’s almost 3 pm, and the dismissal bell will soon ring. Some of our students are eager to be at home with their families; others hesitate to leave the safe and stable haven we have become for them. I know I will think of my students tonight: Maria’s* gentle smile; Michael’s* buoyant energy; Mohamed,* who is so kind to his friend, and Danielle,* who is excited about learning anything new.
I’ll mull over memories of times when I know I was at my best as a teacher and other times when I feel I didn’t quite hit the mark. I’ll reflect on the day thirteen years ago when my need for employment and Cabrini Academy’s need for a first-grade teacher intersected at one magical point—a day when I interviewed for a job and was offered a home.
And I’ll know that not many hours will pass before my students and I are back in the classroom, reassuring ourselves once more that each is glad the other is there. Together, we’ll remember all over again that we are St. Frances Cabrini Academy, a place where a smile and a nod of encouragement can transcend language and cultural barriers, a rare and special place with a rare and special mission.
*The names of the students are fictitious.
Katherine Torrington is a longtime first-grade teacher at Cabrini Academy in St. Louis. In 2020, she was recognized with the Emerson Excellence in Teaching Award, a high honor among teachers in the St. Louis area. When this mother of four and grandmother of three (and counting) isn’t with children, she enjoys the solitude of reading and camping, and the excitement of world travel.