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Education Secretary Betsy DeVos shakes kindergartners hands Sept. 14 at St. Mary School in Lincoln. Photo by Cathy Blankenau Bender/Southern Nebraska Register.

DeVos visits Catholic school in Lincoln

LINCOLN – St. Mary School, across from the state Capitol, was one stop for U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos Sept. 14, as part of her national Rethink Schools tour that included private and public schools in Omaha.

DeVos also visited St. Mary Church in Lincoln, expressing awe at the elaborate stained glass windows and appreciation that the school’s students gather there for Mass at the beginning of each school day.

Inside the school, the education secretary read Dr. Seuss’ "Oh, the Places You’ll Go" to kindergarteners, attended a seventh-grade math class and listened to the student choir.

"It was exciting to have the U.S. Secretary of Education experience a day in the life of a Catholic school in Nebraska," said Bishop James D. Conley of Lincoln. "Private, parochial schools have long been a part of our country’s educational fabric, and St. Mary’s exemplifies the faith, diversity and innovation that help so many students excel."

"Rethinking schools means innovation in education and formation of our young people," the bishop said, "and St. Mary’s is a wonderful example of just that."

Among other innovative approaches, St. Mary was the first school to open its doors to the "Ec3 Academy," a private nonprofit that employs University of Nebraska-Lincoln engineering and math students as one-on-one tutors in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

Diversity at the school includes students who among them speak nearly a dozen native languages. More than 50 percent of the students use free and reduced lunch programs.

"We believe all of our students have a greatness in them that just needs to be inspired and nurtured," said Nina Beck, principal. "We have lofty goals and wonderful children."

Introduced three years ago, the Ec3 Academy has helped improve students’ test scores in science and math and boosted students’ overall confidence in learning, Beck said.

Many students at St. Mary School go on to graduate from Pius X High School in Lincoln, where students boasted an average ACT score of 24.8 in 2016-2017 – the highest among all high schools in Lincoln. Nearly 95 percent of Pius X students took the ACT.

"We are grateful for the secretary’s recognition of the important contribution of all schools, both public and private," said Tom Venzor, executive director of the Nebraska Catholic Conference. "We hope that all people would recognize the public contribution of private schools, and that policymakers would ensure that as many children as possible have the opportunity to attend the school that is best for them."

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