By Denise Fedorow
ELKHART — From high academic standards and extracurricular activities to a strong sense of Catholic identity and community, St. Thomas has a lot to offer.
The principal, Christopher Kolakovich has a long history at the school — he’s been principal for three years, but taught in the building for 11 years and also attended St. Thomas.
The largest of the three Catholic elementary schools in Elkhart County, there are about 381 students enrolled in kindergarten through eighth grades. The school was built in 1950 and completed a renovation project in 2010, adding four classrooms, a student health center, teacher’s lounge and a “more identifiable grand entrance.”
Academically, Kolakovich said they strive to offer instruction tailored to meet each student’s needs. For example, for fifth through eighth grades they have the ALEKS computer program to support math curriculum, which comes with a program for each individual’s math needs, helping to move them forward.
For kindergarten through third grades the school offers a Minds and Motion program, a parent-volunteer run program with a lot of exercise and physical play.
“It stresses balance, motor skills and visual tracking and research has shown it helps students concentrate better and be more focused,” Kolakovich explained.
For extracurricular activities St. Thomas has fall and spring sports teams. Their mascot is the Spartans. Students in seventh and eighth grades host clinics in volleyball and basketball for younger students.
The school offers beginning and advanced bands, a middle school choir and middle school bell choir.
St. Thomas partners with Premier Arts Theatre Company to involve students in drama productions. They also work with third through eighth grade students to produce a musical. The students pay a fee, audition and rehearse with the theatre company and the all-student musical is held at The Lerner Theatre.
“They do a quality job with our students and they get to be on a real stage — it’s definitely a unique extracurricular,” Kolakovich said.
Community service is a big focus at St. Thomas — each grade level has a special project. For example, kindergartners collect clothes for The Christ Child, fourth graders had a bake sale for the Elkhart County Humane Society and eigth graders participated in a “seed to feed” program and picked potatoes and brought them to a local food pantry.
Building on community and Catholic identity, St. Thomas has “school family” groups — led by an eighth grader and consisting of students of all grade levels, they have special programs for the school family groups, usually tied to the liturgical season. They offer Advent prayer services and Holy Thursday Seder meals for the groups.
But according to Kolakovich, the biggest strength is the people.
“The students first of all — we have a great group of kids who treat each other with respect, … take education seriously and appreciate being in a Catholic school — where they can talk about God and pray,” he said.
He went on to praise the dedicated staff, who feel they have a vocation and embrace their Catholic identity, the parent volunteers, who are so service minded, and their pastor.
“Father Bill (Sullivan) is a big supporter of the school. He really cares about the school and likes to greet the kids when they arrive and when they’re dismissed,” Kolakovich added.
St. Thomas offers a “daily dose of faith” that helps keep students grounded.
Drawing children to Jesus is reason for Catholic schools
By Karen Clifford
ELKHART — The Savior, a saint, students and snow were in the mix as Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades celebrated Mass and visited St. Thomas the Apostle School in Elkhart on Jan. 31.
On the memorial day of St. John Bosco, Bishop Rhoades explained the background of the saint to a large congregation filled with students, teachers, administrators, parents and parishioners. Bosco was an Italian parish priest, who worked with poor young boys to offer them an education that incorporated spiritual guidance and catechetical teaching.
In 1859, some of these same boys became a part of a group started by Bosco called the Salesians, who encouraged education and mission work. Bosco later formed a group for women called the Salesian Sisters that encompassed the same values as the original group.
Bishop Rhoades spoke of Jesus’ love for children by referring to the Gospel of Matthew when Christ said, “Let the children come to me,” and “Unless you become like little children you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Bishop Rhoades explained that drawing children to Jesus is the number one reason for Catholic schools.
“A Catholic school should not only be a school of academics or athletics, but also a school of holiness,” Bishop Rhoades emphasized.
During his visit to school classrooms, Bishop Rhoades encountered many faith questions from students. In the kindergarten class, the bishop asked the students “If I am a shepherd, who are the sheep?” After one student replied, “We are,” another student said, “But we don’t look anything like sheep!”
The first grade class impressed Bishop Rhoades when he asked them what they were studying in religion and a student answered that they were studying St. Thomas Aquinas. “That’s the first time I have ever had a first-grade class tell me they are studying St. Thomas Aquinas!” Bishop Rhoades remarked.
After learning that fifth graders were studying the seven sacraments of the Church, Bishop Rhoades asked a volunteer to come to the front of the class so that the bishop could show the students the outward signs of the sacrament of Holy Orders for a priest’s ordination. He asked a young man to kneel so that he could demonstrate the laying on of hands, and then later showed how the anointing of the priest’s hands with sacred chrism oil is done.
One of the biggest surprises and highlights for Bishop Rhoades during his classroom visits came when the seventh grade, under the leadership of teacher Mary Lucchese, recited the “Our Father” prayer in Latin.
Father Bill Sullivan, pastor of St. Thomas the Apostle Parish, offered his reflections on Catholic education.
“As the bishop was saying earlier today, the reason for our school is the person of Jesus Christ. When a child is brought to the waters of Baptism, we think of one of the Gospel passages where Jesus said, ‘Let the children come to me.’ The parents believe that the relationship is not only to be nurtured in the home, but on a daily basis in their education,” said Father Sullivan.
“Our schools are very blessed with academics, and I believe that has been proven time and time again. But when we touch the spiritual life of a child, it is part of who a person is as well,” said Father Sullivan.
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