St. Joseph School, Toms River, students Sage Farina, left, and James Kopack display their winning project on a study of clean water needs in Nicaragua at the N.J. Statehouse Jan. 31. Hal Brown photos
St. Joseph School, Toms River, students Sage Farina, left, and James Kopack display their winning project on a study of clean water needs in Nicaragua at the N.J. Statehouse Jan. 31. Hal Brown photos

By EmmaLee Italia | Contributing Editor

Celebrating Catholic Schools Week, student representatives and school officials of Catholic Schools from around the state were recognized Jan. 31 at the State House in Trenton for all they contribute to New Jersey – quality education, responsible citizenship and financial support.

Photo Gallery: Students make Catholic Schools Week visit to N.J. State House

“We thank the students … and the parents, relatives and friends that have made it possible for you to attend a Catholic school,” said Dr. George Corwell, director of the office of education for the New Jersey Catholic Conference, who offered the opening prayer. “We hope that today … you will have the opportunity to explain how important Catholic education is to you, as you meet your legislators.”

Winners of the Catholic Schools Week poster and video project – one elementary school and one high school per diocese – were recognized for their stellar work in promoting and practicing the theme of “Catholic Schools Care for Our Earth.” The Dioceses of Trenton, Camden, Metuchen and Paterson as well as the Archdiocese of Newark all participated.

Statewide Recognition

Following a guided tour of the State House, students gathered in a community room where their projects were on display. Mary McElroy, director of the New Jersey Network of Catholic School Families, introduced the NJNCSF’s representatives for each of the dioceses, as well as two diocesan Catholic school superintendents – Mary Boyle of the Diocese of Camden and JoAnn Tier of Diocese of Trenton.

Rev. Derrick Green, senior advisor for faith-based initiatives to the governor’s office, read aloud and presented a copy of Gov. Philip Murphy’s proclamation of Catholic Schools Week in New Jersey to Boyle, chair of the council of Catholic superintendents.

“I speak on behalf of 68,890 students in our Catholic schools in this state,” said Boyle. “We are proud to operate 229 schools, and that our graduates continue to move the economic base of New Jersey forward, because our students are successful, and they bring a commitment to our state and to our country based on our faith.”

Students took turns explaining their projects to the audience of their peers, school officials and parents in the State House community room. During presentations, several state legislators and representatives stopped by to offer their congratulations and accolades.

“For me, it is an argument of fairness, of choice,” said Assemblyman Gary Schaer, D-Passaic, who helped craft the legislation that allowed for the recent increase in nonpublic school security funding, speaking on the importance of adequate funding for all schools in technology, security, nursing and transportation. “What is critical is that to the extent that is constitutionally allowable, that the state does more for [all] schools … There is much for you to do – you need to be in touch with your legislator, state assemblymen and women, senator and governor’s office. It took an incredible amount of resolve, of sweat, to get this bill passed.”

Sen. Steve Oroho, R-24, and Sen. Linda Greenstein, D-14, both voiced their support of nonpublic schools.

“My eighth grade teacher, Sister Maureen Dunn, made a difference in my life – she challenged me to [improve my grades],” Oroho said when describing his Catholic education. “I want to thank you all very much – students, parents, teachers and administrators … you’re such an important part of our education system.”

““Every year, transportation is a big issue, and I’m very glad to help; you can’t get a good education if you can’t get to school,” Greenstein noted. “I’ve seen all sides of the wonderful education that you get. I’m very glad to help because I know you get an excellent education at Catholic school. You’re disciplined, and you’re doing well in subjects … and I believe you all have the right to get a good education and get help when you need it.”

With the state budget scheduled to come out in March, McElroy reminded students that funding for nonpublic school needs doesn’t increase “unless your legislators hear from you – you are their constituents … If the legislators don’t’ hear from us, they think, ‘Oh, they don’t need any more money.’ The squeaky wheel gets the grease.”

 “Catholic schools alone save our state $1.4 billion per year,” Boyle said. “I say that to our students and parents, because it is particularly important, when we issue our New Jersey action alerts – that you mobilize, so that our children get what is deserving of them. They are citizens of the state of New Jersey, and they and their parents deserve taxpayer support … I am very proud to be here. This is a minute touch of what goes on in [Catholic] schools each and every day.”

Presenting Change

James Kopack and Sage Farina, seventh graders in St. Joseph School, Toms River, presented their winning school project for the Trenton Diocese:  a study of clean water needs in Nicaragua. The interdisciplinary STREAM approach meant that science and Spanish, technology, religion, engineering, art and math department all played a role – ultimately resulting in a hand-held water filtration device that could help families who had to walk hours to find non-potable water.

“Access to safe and drinkable water is a basic and universal human right,” Kopack said. “This is essential to human survival … as Pope Francis said in his encyclical ‘Laudato Sí.’

“In Nicaragua more than 1 million people currently live without clean water – that’s almost one in five people,” Farina reflected.

Both St. Joseph students were surprised and touched that they were chosen to represent the Diocese of Trenton.

“It’s really an amazing to be invited,” Kopack said. “Not many kids get to go here – it’s a great experience.”

“It’s such an honor,” Farina agreed. “It was really cool [to hear from the legislators.]”

The winning video project from the Diocese of Trenton was the work of St. Rose High School, Belmar, led by seniors Dashka Delva and Alex Nappi. It followed the school’s myriad efforts to clean up the environment, ranging from a composting program and community garden to raising funds to replace school drinking fountains with water bottle filling stations, reducing plastic water bottle consumption by thousands per year.

“I wanted to help the environment and help God’s creation,” Nappi said of his interest in the video project. “I enjoyed having the opportunity to help out, and to try new things.”

Delva explained how the project related to her Catholic education. “I think going to a Catholic school allow us to see the world for what it is … we put morality into what we’re being successful in,” she said. “So get to see what’s good and bad in the world, and how we can help it – so a small thing can have a big impact.”

“The water fountain project was completely student-driven … The point we make with our students is that everyone has a role,” said Michael Falgares, St. Rose director of technology and innovation. “It starts in the classroom, and then with action … it goes along with our faith.”