School choice: the relatively recent concept that families can choose a school that best suits their child. But those words have different meanings for teachers. For 10 St. Mary’s alumni who are teaching in Colorado Springs area Catholic schools, the choice was clear: Catholic education was where they wanted to be.
And these 10 teachers didn’t arrive at that conclusion based on what they’d only heard. Most of them have experienced both public and Catholic education, even if their exposure to public education was through student teaching or substitute teaching. And all said they’ve seen a big difference between Catholic education and public education. Citing everything from expression of faith to parental involvement, the teachers said the atmosphere in Catholic education is different.
St. Mary’s Principal Mike Biondini ’66 found his lifelong passion for education during his sophomore year in college. Then he spent 31 years teaching in public schools before returning to St. Mary’s in 2002.
“St. Mary’s always intrigued me,” he said. “I wanted to come back and give back in some small way for the start the school gave me. But I never thought I’d still be here, and being principal was never on my radar.”
Having spent extensive time in the public schools, Biondini said the sense of community is truly different. During his years as a student, Biondini said he wasn’t a very good student and at times got into trouble. But at St. Mary’s, he said everyone comes together to provide what the students need. That was the case during his time as a student at St. Mary’s, and Biondini feels it’s still true today.
“I wasn’t a straight A student, but I’ve still been productive in life,” Biondini said. “Now I see myself as an advocate for the average Joe. I wasn’t stellar in high school, but I found a place at St. Mary’s and still felt valued.”
The sense of community found in Catholic schools was something that all of the teachers mentioned. It’s a unique atmosphere in which all participants feel they are working toward common goals.
Almost forty years after Biondini graduated from St. Mary’s, Dillon Turpin’s class of 2003, graduated. Having attended Catholic schools for his whole school career, Turpin always thought he wanted to teach at a Catholic school. But spending time substitute teaching in the public schools served to solidify that decision.
“The parents here at St. Mary’s want to see their kids thrive and they want to know what they can do at home to help them do that,” Turpin said. “Parents are just more engaged here.”
For the Burkett family, Catholic education is a family affair. Kaitlyn Burkett ’06 teaches first grade at Pauline Memorial. Her sister Kelsey Burkett Vance ’03 teaches at Divine Redeemer and her father, Mike, ’71 coaches girls’ basketball at St. Mary’s. Kaitlyn Burkett said she’s known her whole life that she wanted to be a teacher but student teaching at a public school solidified her love for Catholic education.
“The sense of community in Catholic schools is so strong,” Burkett said. “To be a part of a community where you are fully supported and know that all of the students are supported and encouraged. It’s very significant.”
Veronica Benish Nuvolini ’84 and Michelle Bowen ’06 also see the community aspect of Catholic schools as a major difference. Nuvolini teaches fifth grade plus third and fourth grade science and social studies at Corpus Christie, while Bowen teaches seventh and eighth grades at Pauline Memorial.
Nuvolini said with smaller class sizes come the chance to not only get to know the students individually but to also know their parents and siblings. She said that family feeling at Catholic schools really makes a difference. Bowen agrees.
“I have 12 students in my class so I have an opportunity to know them and really make an impression,” she said. “As middle schoolers they are developing their character and truly becoming who they are meant to be.”
Bowen knows first-hand what kind of impact at teacher at a Catholic school can have on a student. It’s what she experienced at St. Mary’s during her first two years there.
“I was influenced heavily by Lois Chance, my freshman English and sophomore AP English teacher,” Bowen said. “She gave me the confidence that I could accomplish any goal.”
For Sean Mersman ’05, who now teaches at Divine Redeemer, the teacher who had the most impact was his high school math and physical education teacher, Mr. Luppino. He said that Luppino and his parents helped him always reach for greatness. Mersman believes that is the kind of support every student should have.
“I believe that every person should feel like they are important and could leave an impression on this world; whether it’s a small impression or a big one, because every bit matters,” he said.
Turpin said he knew in high school that he wanted to teach, and that choice was influenced heavily by his high school history teacher, Don Lupton,.
“He made history fun and it made sense to me,” Turpin said. “I became enthralled with history and majored in it in college because I knew I wanted to be a teacher.”
Of course, the faith element of Catholic education is an aspect that is obviously different from public education. And according to the teachers it is a large part of what makes Catholic education unique.
Catholic education was all Rebecca Keith ’99 knew growing up. But it was during the last year in her graduate program at the University of Colorado at Boulder that Keith got hooked on teaching. Before returning to St. Mary’s as a science teacher, Keith spent six years in public schools. That experience gave her a greater appreciation for Catholic education.
“I’m truly grateful to work here,” Keith said. “I know that the phrase “living the dream” is kind of cliché but it’s truly what I’m doing.”
For Keith, Mass is the best part of working at St. Mary’s. While the academics are more rigorous than public school, Keith said the faith component is key to what makes Catholic schools different.
“How do you teach your students to be good citizens without God,” Keith said. “Schools try hard, but to be successful at it God is needed.”
After attending Divine Redeemer and St. Mary’s, Michelle Senger Bowers ’93 never wanted to teach anywhere but a Catholic school.
“Once I attended a school Mass and saw how pumped the students are to be learning about God, I knew I’d never again teach anywhere else,” she said. “When you meet the students that attend Catholic Schools, they are truly different. They are humble, grateful, and loving: true models of Christ, which makes it so much simpler for the teachers as well.”
So the pasts of these teachers—growing up in Catholic education—certainly impacted their futures. Nuvolini credits St. Mary’s with beginning her love of Catholic education.
“St. Mary’s was really the beginning of my dedication to Catholic education as a whole,” Nuvolini said. “Catholic education raises the bar and I believe if you raise the bar higher, kids will meet the bar.”
And while Biondini, who attended public elementary and junior high schools, came to Catholic education later than some, that community continues to impact his life today.
“Since I’ve come back, St. Mary’s has given me more than I’ve given it,” Biondini said. “It’s renewed my Catholic passion. Whatever small token I’ve given to St. Mary’s has been returned 100 fold to me in my personal and spiritual life.”
By Amy G. Partain, Communications Associate
St. Mary's High School
Below, Kaitlyn Burkett, SMHS class of 2006, now teaches at Pauline Memorial Catholic School. She loves the community that comes with Catholic education.