Jennifer Fregalette's First- and Second-Grade Classroom

Hanging on the back of the first- and second-grade students’ desks at St. Ignatius of Loyola School, Concord Hill, are some interesting looking characters, or at least the heads of characters. Made using wire coat hangers covered with nylons, construction paper eyes and other materials to round out the looks, these faces are eye-catching and fun.

They are also book reports.

“Instead of having them write out a report — because in first and second grade I think the parents will end up ‘helping’ too much — I have them do something more creative,” explained their teacher, Jennifer Fregalette. “Then each student stands in front of the class and gives an oral presentation on it. It helps them work on public speaking skills.”

Fregalette has other fun options for book reports, including an edible one where students select a food or drink associated with a story and then bring in that item to share with the class as they describe the book and another where they dress up as the main character and describe their favorite part of the story.

It’s no wonder that many of Fregalette’s past students use the words “creative” and “enthusiastic” to describe her teaching style. Others agree.

Fregalette is the latest St. Ignatius teacher to be selected for the Cardinal Raymond L. Burke Teacher Recognition Award from the St. Louis Archdiocese. She will receive the award during a ceremony in May.

The Burke award, which is only given to eight out of more than 500 teachers each year, has previously been presented to teacher Emily Weber and Teaching Principal Karen Tucker.

In fact, St. Ignatius’ small teaching staff of five is well decorated. In addition to the Burke award, three teachers — Tucker, Weber and Amanda Schwoeppe — have received the Outstanding Educator Award from the Washington Rotary Club, and Tucker, who in addition to teaching fifth- and sixth-grade literature and seventh- and eighth-grade math, also is the school’s principal, has received the new St. Rose Philippine Duchesne Principal Award.

This is the first year for the St. Rose award, which was established by the Elementary Principals’ Coordinator Council “to celebrate and elevate leadership in Catholic elementary schools . . . and to communicate that excellence to the broader public.”

Only three principals in the Archdiocese were selected to receive the St. Rose Award, which will be handed out durinf a ceremony in June.

Some of Their ‘Best Practices’

To receive either the Burke Award or the new St. Rose Award begins with being nominated — Fregalette by Tucker, and Tucker by other principals in the local deanery.

Next both were required to provide written statements about their “best practices” and provide examples of their work.

Fregalette, who has taught at St. Ignatius now for 15 years, described her approach in teaching a double-grade classroom which has advantages for the students (ability to work ahead for some students and the chance to review previous year’s lessons), but challenges and extra work for her; the “survival guide” she creates each year for parents including the school year’s spelling words, vocabulary lists, book report options with due dates and a list of phonics rules; and the ways she makes First Reconciliation and First Communion special, such as using a variety of religious children’s books to “catch their attention” and having the children create fleece cross pillows with a felt heart inside to represent their love for Jesus.

“I have been told that three or four years later, they are still on several of the children’s beds and are slept with every night. I love that they go to sleep . . . loving and thinking about our Lord,” Fregalette wrote.

She also shares the story of “Benjamin’s Box” by Melody Carlson, about a boy who follows Jesus from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday, collecting treasures along the way, and then provides each student with a stained wooden box to collect their own treasures. They even bake Communion bread with some help from the parents.

“Father Finbarr joins us for a special blessing, and then they enjoy their bread with sparkling grape juice,” Fregalette wrote.

Tucker, who had experience in writing a “statement” paper from the time she was nominated for the Burke Award, found this time around even more humbling because she had been nominated by her peers and also because she never set out to be a principal.

“I loved being in the classroom,” she wrote, noting her first seven years at St. Ignatius were spent as a full-time teacher.

Then in November 2009 she was asked to take on the temporary role of principal, in addition to her teaching duties, when the principal resigned suddenly.

“I felt God was asking me to enter upon a pathway that I had never considered,” Tucker wrote in her statement. “I truly felt that this was His plan for me.”

She decided to keep her classroom upstairs, away from the school office so visitors to see Principal Tucker would understand they needed to schedule appointments outside of her teaching hours. She also made a mindful effort not to make any drastic changes right away and to include the faculty in discussions when changes were necessary,

“By including my peers, I managed to lead quietly and firmly,” she wrote. “ . . . As a result, we have developed a respectful and friendly rappport. We work together as a cooperative team.”

Over the last several years, though, Tucker has implemented some improvements. “Among them, time for prayer and spirituality, time for faculty gatherings, a heightened interest in continuing education for faculty members, improved communications with parents and parishioners and raising the academic bar.”

One of the more interesting improvements is having the faculty read a book together each year. Past titles are “Seven Keys to Comprehension,” “Professional Learning Communities at Work,” “The Energy Bus,” and they are currently reading “Brain Rules.”

They discuss the book during monthly faculty meetings.

“We learn from the insights shared among ourselves,” Tucker noted. “ . . . We also visit our classrooms to observe SMART Board lessons, as we share our expertise with each other.”

The faculty makes an effort too each month to get together outside of school. These Faculty Fun Nights help them get to know each other, learn about their families and common interests, said Tucker.

She includes color photos in her monthly school newsletter, which she also distributes (by request) at the back of church each month.

Last year Tucker oversaw the faculty as they rewrote the curriculum, filling in gaps and “resulting in a more cohesive flow of learning.”

“For the past five years, we have been tracking our graduates,” Tucker said. “Routinely, 80 percent of our graduates are on the honor rolls of their respective high schools. We are very proud of this fact.”

She has led the school’s transition to a healthier lunch menu that includes no processed foods, select home-grown items from a greenhouse on campus and offers students taste-testing opportunities to determine what will be served. She brought yoga into her classroom to help the students with fitness and relaxation.

For student appreciation day during Catholic Schools Week, Tucker organizes field trips for the whole school to places like Sports Fusion, Sky Zone and Bounce U.

‘Work Ethic Is Contagious’

If it seems unusual that three of the only five teachers at St. Ignatius have been selected as leaders in their field, not so to Pastor Father Finbarr Dowling. The challenges presented by the small school — 65 students from 45 families — mean only the strong survive here, and they feed off of each other.

“The work ethic is contagious,” he said.

Fregalette agrees.

“It’s what’s kept me here,” she said. “We’re always here to help each other. ‘I’ve heard . . .,’ ‘I’ve seen . . . ,’ ‘I want this for them . . . ’ I have the support of the whole staff, and I honestly know that.”

Tucker pointed out that, unlike many schools, St. Ignatius’ teachers don’t share any planning time.

“We’re on our own. We have to be self-motivated,” she remarked.

“We don’t see teaching as our job. It’s a vocation.”

Father Finbarr commended Tucker for meeting the challenge of being a teaching principal. It means a better learning environment for the students and a better work environment for the rest of the staff.

“If you’re going to understand the ship you’re running, you have to get into the ship one day,” he remarked.

Tucker said the dual role has been a blessing in disguise.

“Actually, I think that every principal should also teach at least one class,” she wrote in her statement paper. “Teaching keeps you grounded, aware of what is happening among the student body, and gives you a better understanding of what the teachers are experiencing, allowing for more compassionate leadership.”