Surrounded by larger schools like St. Anne in Laguna Niguel and St. Edward the Confessor Parish School in Dana Point, as well as its hillside location along Coast Highway overlooking the Pacific Ocean, St. Catherine of Siena School in Laguna Beach is a unique gem for elementary student learning.
“The school, being small, is child-centered and child-oriented with a very strong academic program,” says Sally Todd, associate superintendent of schools in the Diocese of Orange.
The school is comprised of 175 students with one grade per class and an average class size of 15 to 20 students. Its unique location allows the school to maintain a strong relationship with Laguna Beach’s art community, which brings many exciting opportunities for students and enhances their education.
“Laguna Beach is known as an artistic community. We embrace that. So this allows us to have a very strong integrated program where the arts is integrated into the curriculum of each classroom,” explains Principal Mike Letourneau.
One example of this is a project where sixth grade students build pyramids out of cardboard. They later progress to building pyramids out of clay, complete with hieroglyphic designs. The clay pyramid is then fired in the kiln and later taken to their history class and tied into their Egyptian civilization lesson.
Eighth-grade students are engaged in a similar art project for language arts. Students will create the head of a character out of clay in art class and then return to their language arts class to begin writing a fictional creative story about the character. Once the story is complete, students return to art class where they build the rest of the character’s body and decorate it with clothing and other features. When they return to their language arts class, students will peer-edit their stories and then deliver a class presentation of their story through their character.
“We have many ways to integrate art into our curriculum and have them demonstrate their knowledge through different mediums. We do similar things with music and drama,” says Letourneau. “It’s very exciting for our kids.”
The school utilizes partnership programs with the Laguna Plein Air Painters Association and Class Act with Pacific Symphony to bring professional artists and musicians to provide valuable lessons to students.
Outside of the everyday classroom, 70 percent of the students volunteer to perform in the Master’s Pageant, a version of Laguna Beach’s annual Pageant of the Masters, where actors pose and dress to recreate classical and contemporary works of art. Costumes, make-up and backdrops are designed by students, teachers and parents. Alumni also return to the school to assist with music, sound and stage production.
Although founded in 1957, the school building is only eight years old. The original structure was demolished and rebuilt with a new gymnasium with improved sound and lighting, music lab, art lab and state-of-the-art classrooms wired to provide the latest technology.
“The three pillars of our school is our faith-based curriculum, academics and the arts,” Letourneau says. “We use technology in all three of those, so we have a very strong iPad program and a 1-to-1 learning environment. We use the technology to drive the academics, to drive the faith base. It’s a tool for us.”
Teachers and staff are preparing for the new school year with an emphasis on differentiated learning and utilizing more of the technology available to them.
“We are building in time for kids to use different programs and applications to enhance their education, not to take replace it, but to enhance it,” Letourneau says. “So we will be expanding on their ability to learn and grow.”