The Academy of the Sacred Heart had its start nearly 200 years ago in a log cabin in Saint Charles, with just three boarding students and 20 commuting students in 1818. At present, the Catholic elementary educates 250 students on a 10-acre campus that encompasses a full city block.
The Academy of the Sacred Heart’s founder is St. Rose Philippine Duchesne, a member of the Society of the Sacred Heart in France. St. Madeleine Sophie Barat founded the Society of the Sacred Heart in France in 1800.
“They believed that if you educated (particularly) women and children, you could change the world,” said Dr. Susan Dempf, head of school for the Academy. “Fast forward 200 years, and we still believe that. it’s through education, as well as helping children become sensitive to the needs of others, that they will one day be able to shape their world and make it a better place.”
The Academy had its start as a school for girls from the ages of kindergarten through high school.
“(Madeleine Sophie) really believed that there was more for females to know than to sew or paint or needlepoint, but (also) knowing the sciences, and math, and knowing and understanding and reading great literature (was important),” said Marcia Renken, principal at the Academy of the Sacred Heart.
In 1972, a difficult decision was made to close the high school. In order to grow and continue to thrive, the school opened its doors to boys in kindergarten and first grade in the fall of that year.
“It was meant to be two distinct schools—the Academy of the Sacred Heart for the girls and Perier Elementary for the boys,” said Renken. “In the beginning, it was separate education, and each year following that we added boys to an additional grade level until all classes K-8 consisted of both girls and boys. Then, at that time, we started having more co-educational classes.”
In 1986, the Academy expanded again to include a pre-primary school for four-year-olds. The Academy hit its enrollment peak with a little more than 700 students in the 1990s. The school also introduced block scheduling for middle school students in grades 6 through 8. Block scheduling uses 70-minute blocks of learning every other day, so students focus on six core subjects throughout the week.
“This provides more robust and in-depth learning compared to the 40-minute classes every day. That was significant in the 90s,” said Renken.
In the early 2000s, Renken added, the Academy became a school of computers and wireless technology. The school also started single-gender classes for the seventh and eighth graders. Two years later, sixth grade also went to single-gender classrooms.
Dempf said the single-gender classrooms present students with opportunities that allow them to learn and grow without the social piece that sometimes gets in the way.
“The separate setting allows them to be better at being who they are in a less intimidating way,” said Renken. “They demonstrate a freedom to make mistakes, to own their voice, to speak their truth, to test the waters, without worrying about what the opposite sex may be thinking or doing.”
Renken said the separation also made sense because boys and girls learn differently, and single-gender classrooms allowed teachers to design the classrooms to benefit the different learning styles.
This school year, the Academy is offering math and language arts in single-gender classrooms for the fifth-grade students.
One of the hallmarks of the education programs at the Academy are the International languages that start in primary grades. The school offers both French and Spanish classes.
“It has always been highly respected, and there’s always been an intrigue about how we get these young kids to test into advanced language,” said Renken. “I think it’s the quality of the program and the teachers who have been able to execute it.”
Upon graduation, many Academy graduates are testing into second-year language courses as freshmen. Last year one of the students tested into a third-year language program.
Along with the option of taking an international language, the school added global studies in 2002-2003.
“We felt it important to begin to acknowledge and teach that the world was becoming a smaller place,” said Renken. “We want our children to understand that different isn’t wrong; different is just different.”
The global studies program for K through fourth grade exposes students to four different continents and a single country in each continent. Renken said it was designed to give the children a flavor of the world while acknowledging the world was at their fingertips. This fall, students learned about South Korea, as it is the location for the 2018 Winter Olympics.
“That proved to be a very positive experience,” said Renken. The students are learning about the country, speaking some of the language, dancing, singing and cooking some of the traditional foods, she said.
The school will also continue to foster the emerging areas of science and technology for its students. The Academy introduced a newly designated space for a science lab with a dedicated science teacher for the lower school.
“We have little children who are learning to code. We have a group of girls who are developing an app in support of the firefighters in St. Charles,” said Dempf.
The school also has a 1:1 laptop program for grades 6-8, and thanks to a community grant from Boeing, the school was also able to expand its robotics program.
Dempf said of the top 10 in-demand careers of today, eight of them did not exist in the last 5-10 years.
“As we look forward to the future for these children…we have to consider what skills are needed,”
The school also added a pre-primary class for three-year-olds this year, three days/week. The pilot program, called Little Acorns, is open only to current families this year, but it will open to the public for the 2018-19 school year. The program will offer both three-day and five-day/week options. The Academy also offers scholarships and tuition assistance for all grade levels.
Dempf believes students who graduate from the Academy are well prepared and ready to take on high school.
“There isn’t a big transition period where they have a rocky start. When they go, they are confident that they’re prepared and they have the skills to do high school work successfully,” said Dempf.
Simple skills like organization and time management are taught at a very young age at the Academy.
“Our students are consistently noted by admission directors, principals, and heads of school, for their organizational skills which are highly stressed here. Time management skills are built in from the time they’re in first grade,” said Renken.
Courtesy and respect are also hallmarks of the school. “They know how to present themselves. They have good eye contact, solid handshakes, and know how to speak and introduce themselves,” said Renken.
Serving the community is also a core philosophy at the Academy. All ages of students participate in community service throughout the school year.
“We gradually increase their awareness and knowledge. So, when they enter high school they are ready to act,” said Renken.
Starting in fifth grade, the students will leave campus six times a year to volunteer. Whether it’s visiting with seniors at Mount Carmel or volunteering at the Special Olympics, students at the Academy are being taught not only the basics like math and English—but also about giving back and taking care of those who cannot help themselves.
“We want to inspire our students to be courageous and confident leaders who know and share the love of God. And they share it through service,” said Renken.
Future plans for the Academy include expanding after-school enrichment programs, especially in the areas of music and arts.
“We are ultimately looking to add a summer program to meet the needs of our families during the offseason of our school,” said Dempf.
The Academy has many plans for the upcoming bicentennial. Visit www.ash1818.org for more details.