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Parents find ‘conspirators for the good’ at Wellspring Catholic Academy of St. Bernadette

The mission of Wellspring Catholic Academy of St. Bernadette is quite simple: to help each student discover their God-given gifts, to then share those gifts with the world.

This mission is made manifest in a decidedly Catholic education, but also in the school’s intentional willingness to meet families where they are and give each student the opportunity to tap into this divine potential — no matter who they are. Located in Lakewood and attached to St. Bernadette Parish, Wellspring Catholic Academy is a K-8 school that serves a variety of students from a diverse array of backgrounds and family situations. Some families even make long drives to ensure their child can receive an education there.

So what is it that makes Wellspring Academy such a special and unique school?

“We like to think we’re doing right by parents as being conspirators for the good,” said Father Joe McLagan, pastor of St. Bernadette. “We really want to do for the good of the family, for the good of the kid, no matter who walks in the door.”

Wellspring Academy accomplishes this in several ways, and they do so for a largely underserved population that lives in their particular suburb of Denver. Virtually all of the families who send their children to preschool there receive some sort of financial aid.

“Over 90 percent of our families receive tuition assistance, over 80 percent qualify for free and reduced lunch and over 60 percent are English learners,” said assistant principal Catherine Kleczek.

Among those students are several preschoolers who live at the Marisol Homes single mom shelter with their mom that’s conveniently located next door to St. Bernadette. The shelter is run by Catholic Charities, but they partner with Wellspring Academy to ensure the women who live there can send their children to a quality school, all without having to go very far.

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“It’s a nice partnership with Catholic Charities in that sense, because we looked at it as an opportunity of, you don’t even have to go 100 feet to find your school,” Father McLagan said. “I think it’s any parent’s dream.”

Preschoolers at Wellspring Catholic Academy of St. Bernadette paint during class. (Photo by Anya Semenoff)

More than that, however, providing these kids with access to a Catholic education falls in line with St. Bernadette Parish’s mission and responsibility to care for the people who come knocking at their door seeking help.

“It’s the responsibility of the parish to care for people, and these women come from all walks of life,” Father McLagan explained. “They have a Saint Margaret of Cortona chapel, she’s a patron of unwed mothers. We helped them get that up and running. We’ve desired to be amiable for the good of that endeavor of what Charities wants to do as well as with the single moms, which is provide a space for those moms to have a place for education for the children.”

Another key way in which Wellspring Academy serves an underserved population is by partnering with the Fire Foundation to provide an inclusive and specialized education for students with special needs. The school currently has two students with learning disabilities, and they are able to support these students with one-on-one aids and other resources, albeit in a Catholic school environment as opposed to a public one. One mom, Fransisca, whose son Matthew is a sixth grader with autism, told the Denver Catholic that she drives all the way to Lakewood from Centennial so Matthew can receive a Catholic education.

“The inclusion piece is super unique,” Kleczek said. “We really, truly serve kids from the full spectrum.”

Another student, Leo, is in kindergarten has down Down Syndrome. He and his family recently moved to Colorado for Leo to have better educational opportunities. When they found Wellspring Academy, they were thrilled.

“Leo is absolutely loved by his peers and the staff,” said Monica, Leo’s mom. “The school’s administration is dedicated to working with families with differently-abled children so that they, too, have the opportunity to learn our precious Catholic faith. Leo is fully included and fully supported by an amazing aide. His social and communications skills are improving by the week. After closely observing his classmates, he’s decided that he also wants to make his best effort to sit through Mass quietly, thanks be to God.”

Leo, left, is a kindergarten student with Down syndrome who gets the support and resources he needs at Wellspring Academy, thanks to a partnership with the Fire Foundation. (Photo provided)

While Leo is getting the help he needs to learn well, his mere presence in the classroom is itself also an invaluable lesson for all of the other students at Wellspring Academy — one that can’t be taught or learned from books or equations.

“It’s that humanity emphasis. It’s so beautiful to see the little kids grab his hand and hug him,” Kleczek said. “Academics are important, but it really is about stretching their hearts. And I see that as the emphasis. He has a one-on-one aid and she’s doing a great job helping him as much as possible to be included in the academic piece. But it also adds so much to the other kids and their experience of education. It’s not just, ‘I get ahead or I get all A’s in math.’ It’s also, ‘Well, Leo’s sitting next to me and he needs help.’ That’s part of learning too.”

Schools in the Lakewood area have been closing down, which makes it all the more important for Wellspring Catholic Academy to maintain its growing presence as an exceptional school option for families. The school is in the process of transitioning to a Teaching for Transformation curriculum, which is essentially a Christian version of Expeditionary Learning. They will be one of only two Catholic schools in the country that uses this curriculum — both of which are in Denver. The other is Annunciation Catholic School.

“It has a deeply Christian ethos, which is why we adopted it,” Father McLagan said. “The ideals which teaching for transformation brings on [are] the good that the person has and is capable of and educating that reality for them. We are one of the two Catholic institutions in the country that do this, and they’re both in Denver. There’s no Catholic school that does this.”

“I think the vision of any education is the realization of the Incarnation and how that boils out into the way we teach. And Wellspring, if we had a direct aim, it’s understanding the divinity in Christ who humbled himself to share our humanity. This is why we do what we do.”

Teaching for Transformation fosters four key habits of learning in students: Curious thinking, gracious communicating, joy-filled collaborating and courageous designing. To use an airplane analogy, students are treated as “crew” rather than “passengers” in the learning experience.

“We do what are called crew circles,” Kleczek said. “So kids start the day off in a circle and then end the day in a circle, and they can apologize or do shout outs. The whole philosophy is like they are crew, not passengers. So if a kid is missing or doesn’t speak, that’s what the crew circle is for, so everybody has a chance.”

A couple of years ago, Wellspring Academy was on the verge of closing. However, by reorienting its vision and embracing its identity as a Catholic school, they are growing. They started the school year with 60 students and have since grown to 75. As the school continues to grow and serve a variety of students with different needs from all different walks of life, one constant remains.

“I think the vision of any education is the realization of the Incarnation and how that boils out into the way we teach,” Father McLagan said. “And Wellspring, if we had a direct aim, it’s understanding the divinity in Christ who humbled himself to share our humanity. This is why we do what we do.”

Aaron Lambert
Aaron Lambert
Aaron is the former Managing Editor for the Denver Catholic.
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