Through an innovative environmental-based curriculum, children at St. Monica Academy in Chicago are growing — academically, physically and spiritually. “You can learn anything in the garden,” says Ray Coleman, Principal at St. Monica Academy. “Education, faith and the environment connect all we do.”
In about a dozen different garden plots on St. Monica’s campus, preschool through eighth grade students blend all academic disciplines through a program called Student Environmental Education and Development Studies (SEEDS), which the school launched 15 years ago, and enhanced by tapping into the expertise of the Chicago Botanic Garden.
“We focus on plant-based learning in the lower grades and have themes we create fresh every year. We have a vegetable soup garden, a fairy tale garden, a salsa garden and a sensory garden. These are things the kids can really connect with,” Coleman explains. “We have a flower garden and a butterfly garden which attracts monarchs and other butterflies.”
As students grow, the subjects studied change, and by middle school, they’re studying issues related to climate change, including the importance of water and protecting watersheds, landfills and recycling and renewable sources of energy. “We have photovoltaic solar panels and we connect this into our curriculum and the students study solar, wind, hydroelectric and geothermal energy,” he says. While lessons are rooted in ecology and environmental science, students also lean on the disciplines of language arts, math, social studies, fine arts and religious studies through the SEEDS curriculum.
The academic growth at St. Monica Academy is measurable and capitalizes on the natural curiosity of each age group, beginning in the academy’s top-ranked play-based Early Childhood Program. “Our students really take ownership of the gardens and enjoy the hands-on inquiry-based learning,” Coleman says, adding that there are plenty of community volunteers who help care for the gardens over the summer growing season.
Taking ownership and succeeding
Students at St. Monica Academy also build agency through unique student-led activities, including daily morning video broadcasts. “We knew that the students didn’t need to hear their principal on the loudspeaker doing the announcements, so we established student-led morning video announcements,” says Coleman. “At 7:15 each morning, the students prepare a several-minute broadcast for the following morning, which includes the pledge, a morning prayer, weather and sports, plus birthday announcements,” Coleman says, adding that the kids are adept at editing the video in short order.
“They are efficient and student leaders are in charge of it all. They have an impact on our school in a way that we can see every morning,” he says. “We all have our own gifts, so we use what we have and try different things. This is a great way for kids to have ownership in their school. The more they can own their education, the better off they are.”
Together with strong fine arts and science curricula and comprehensive athletic program, St. Monica Academy students gain a well-rounded faith-based education and learn what is most important in life, Coleman says. And, they are prepared for their next big step.
“A tremendous amount of our students go to Catholic high schools but many also attend selective enrollment schools. In the past 19 years, we have had about a dozen valedictorians and salutatorians at various schools. They do very well when they have a great foundation they formed at St. Monica Academy.”
Learn more about St. Monica Academy at school.stmonicachicago.com.