Peshtigo Catholic school implements ‘blended’ classrooms for instruction

Bishop’s Appeal helps St. Thomas Aquinas adopt blended-learning model

PESHTIGO — With assistance from the Bishop’s Appeal, St. Thomas Aquinas Academy (STAA) of Peshtigo implemented a student-centered learning program called WINGS into grades Pre-K through sixth, allowing students in “blended” classrooms to learn at their own pace.

Principal Mike Cattani said the school is already seeing terrific results from the program in just its first year of application.

Kindergarten students at St. Thomas Aquinas Academy in Peshtigo use Chromebook laptops to complete reading projects in their iReady rotation, one of three classroom rotations that are part of their blended-learning program called WINGS. (Submitted Photo by Mike Cattani | Special To The Compass)

“The kids who did not like school last year love school this year, which I love to see,” Cattani said. “The kids want to keep going, and the teachers almost have to slow them down sometimes.”

The WINGS program was created in Grand Rapids, Mich., by Kendra DeYoung, director of Divine Providence Academy and a blended-learning consultant. The WINGS acronym stands for the following:

  • World Knowledge.
  • Individualized, Innovative Technology.
  • Nurturing Family Environment.
  • God-Centered.
  • Supportive Technology.

The program is a blended-learning model, meaning it uses supportive technology to individualize each student’s pace and place in the learning process. DeYoung said the WINGS model works at schools of all sizes but is especially effective in smaller Catholic schools.

“From a Catholic school standpoint, (WINGS) aligns so well with our Catholic mission and vision that every child is unique in his or her identity, and wanting to invest in that and help each individual child succeed,” DeYoung said. “Depending on their skill set and where their strengths are, we want them to be able to excel in the things that God has given them, the skills to be blessed with, and then we want to be able to support them with those things that maybe don’t come as easily.”

Last year, St. Thomas Aquinas was issued a grant through the Bishop’s Appeal that allowed a team to visit Grand Rapids and observe the WINGS program in action. The grant also allowed the school to use DeYoung as an advisor once the decision was made to adopt the program for the 2017-2018 school year.

Cattani, who was principal of Menominee High School for 35 years before coming to St. Thomas Aquinas, said his team knew WINGS was the right choice and decided to make the change for this year despite the tight turnaround.

“Sometimes you just have to take a risk and move into the 21st century,” said Cattani, now in his second year at St. Thomas Aquinas. “We think it’s going very well.”

The WINGS program moves classrooms away from the traditional method of teaching and learning, where an instructor lectures an entire classroom at the same time and every student works on the same material.

With WINGS, students work in groups that go through three rotations each day. One rotation is a teacher station, where the teacher gives lessons based on each group’s level of knowledge. The second rotation is an independent station, where students work on areas specific to their needs. The third rotation is called iReady, where students work on their school-supplied Chromebooks.

With data collected from the Chromebooks, instructors are able to create individual student plans for the following day based on strengths and weaknesses. The teachers then set monthly goals with each child, and those goals are brought home to be signed by parents.

First- and second-grade teacher Linda Bjorkman, who has taught at St. Thomas Aquinas for more than 30 years, said her students are more engaged in their lessons because the work challenges them but doesn’t overwhelm them.

“It’s very different, and it’s a lot of work, but I love it,” Bjorkman said. “I don’t think I could go back to teaching the other way, where you have some students that aren’t ready to learn something, some students already know it, and some students just need more practice. This way, everyone is getting exactly what they need.”

Kim Wozniak has been with St. Thomas Aquinas for 13 years and currently teaches fourth, fifth and sixth grader. She said her students have responded well to WINGS, as it allows them to communicate about their lessons and progress.

“You can already see that when one student has done a lesson that they are eager to help the other kids,” Wozniak said.

Cattani said the few discipline problems at the school have also declined, as kids are neither bored nor frustrated with their lessons.

A special visit from Bishop David Ricken was a proud moment for Cattani.

“The kids are driven,” Cattani said. “The bishop was here for Mass, and we had a Pre-K through 12 lunch after the Mass. He went around asking kids how they liked their WINGS program, and he said, ‘I’m just amazed at how enthusiastic they are. They said they love school now.’”

Jane Schueller, the curriculum and instruction director for the Diocese of Green Bay, said the diocese was eager to support STAA’s pursuit of the WINGS program.

“We think it’s a good program because it’s just good for education,” Schueller said. “It gives kids voice and choice in their learning. It helps them to grow in learning at a rate that fits for them.”

DeYoung is currently working with 17 Catholic schools on the WINGS program across the nation, tracking data that shows students growing a year and a-half to two years academically in just one school year. She said she is thrilled with the progress of St. Thomas Aquinas and is excited to see what the future holds.

“St. Thomas Aquinas has been one of the best schools to work with as far as their willingness to embrace the change,” DeYoung said. “What I love about them is their values as educators and really wanting to do what is best for their students.”

STAA has already voted to expand WINGS to seventh and eighth grade next school year and hopes to one day have the program continue through the high school in Marinette.

“We don’t want our kids coming up from the elementary school and then going back to the lecture mode, so we are easing our way up through the high school,” Cattani said.