School thriving with enhanced services offered by new addition

MERRILLVILLE – “Home, Sweet Home” was never sweeter than it is these days at Aquinas Catholic Community School, 

“I am still grateful all the time; we never take it for granted,” said principal Lisa Gutierrez of the $3 million school renovations that joined the two school buildings together and added a 5,500-square-foot addition to the 9,400-square-foot school, creating two additional classrooms, a complete office suite and reception area, a nurse’s office, Title I reading resource room, teacher lounge, connecting hallways, technology and file rooms. 
“I breathe a sigh of blessing every day when I arrive. I can’t say enough about the safety and resources we can offer now. It is beyond our imagination.”
Someone who agrees with the principal wholeheartedly is Marquita Maldonado, R.N., who began her fourth year at Aquinas last September in a spacious new nurse’s office that has not only made her job easier, but safer and more effective for her patients.
“I was pretty much a mobile nurse before; I’d put my fanny pack on with band-aids inside and go to the classrooms to treat students. If they needed water, I had to send them out to the water fountain in the hallway,” explained Maldonado, who is employed every school day until an hour before dismissal.
Her new office replaces a cramped storage room and provides not only a desk, bed and sink with a water fountain, but also a refrigerator/freezer, supply cabinet and locked medicine cabinet. “I can store ice packs, juice, insulin for a student who needs it, inhalers, blankets, pillows and all my cleaning supplies,” Maldonado said.
“Sometimes a student just needs a little attention, to lay down for a bit, or to confide in me, and I can close the door and give us some privacy,” she added. “We’ve come a long way, and it’s going absolutely perfectly. The students love it and I’m able to make it a more comfy, homey place.”
Also delighted with their new quarters are Title I reading teachers Megan Anderson and Jennifer Dainton, who traded classroom visits for a spacious, two-room resource center that stores all of their books, worksheets, records and iPads, as well as flexible desk arrangements for study groups of varied sizes.
Both former grade-level teachers, Anderson and Dainton now provide extra support for students at any grade level who need a boost in reading, math or other academic subjects, including English Language Learners who need language tutoring. Classroom teachers, too, can get questions answered about their lessons and curriculum.
“We used to be in a former maintenance room, and then moved to the rectory and sat at the kitchen table and in the family room, where students had to put on coats and gloves and be escorted (from) two buildings away,” Anderson said. “This is the first year we didn’t have to go outdoors to change our groups, and it gives us so much more time to work with the students.
“We have a second, small conference room that we can use for a second reading group, exam takers or tutoring, and instead of tables that were stationary, Jen (Dainton) picked out single desks that fit together in groupings of different sizes, which is really handy.” There is also a reading nook in warm colors with comfortable furniture and soft lighting.
With the greater flexibility, special services, which includes speech therapy and special education tutoring, also meet in the resource rooms, Anderson added.
“Probably about 20% of our students work with us. Our goal is to get students to perform at their grade level and ‘graduate out to the classroom,’” explained Dainton. “Right now, all first graders are testing at a high level and none are receiving Title I services, but that can change, and we monitor it with the classroom teachers.”
Dainton called it “a blessing when a child feels free to say what they are struggling with,” and Anderson added, “We teach the kids to advocate for themselves.”
Thrilled with their new quarters, Anderson said, “We want it homey and uplifting. The kids do love it, and we give them marshmallows as treats. It gives them the best opportunity to succeed when they know they are in a safe environment.”
Catholic Schools Week is “super exciting,” added Dainton. “A lot of our students are already excited to come here to school, but this week they get to celebrate.”
“This week highlights the importance of being educated in a Catholic school and the kids can celebrate that difference,” said Anderson. “They had Red, White and Blue clothing day, Mix & Match day with lots of plaids, and today is Favorite Book or Movie Character Day. We’ll have Sports Day tomorrow, and finish the week with Aquinas Wear Day, which will feature green and white for the Tornados.
“With 235 students, we are small and close-knit, yet we have many resources and the staff gets along so well,” Anderson said. “We’re like a big family. I know the name of every student in this school. Rest assured, your child is in good hands here. I know your child’s needs.”
Gutierrez smiled when she spoke about her staff. “We are blessed with people who loved to work here before we had all these (new) things,” Gutierrez noted. “They have grit and are an amazing example that if you work hard and keep pushing, you’ll get what you need, and we did.”


Caption: A cozy reading nook is available in the Title I reading resource room added last fall at Aquinas Catholic Community School in Merrillville. Taking advantage of it for some quiet reading on Jan. 31 during Catholic Schools Week are eighth graders (from left) Vanessa Ruiz, Vanessa Huizar, Kayla Douts and Yaritza Favela. "It's calmer here," said Huizar, while Favela said the facility allows students to "be connected" as they learn. (Marlene A. Zloza photo)