The four campuses of the Catholic Academy of Bridgeport provide more than 900 students in Pre-K to 8th grade a Christ-centered, academically rigorous learning environment, where cultural diversity is welcomed and celebrated. Students are nurtured, encouraged, and challenged in preparation for a successful life of leadership and service.
TFF investment total to date (2018-2021): $478,000
Catholic Academy of Bridgeport (CAB) was selected to join TFF’s portfolio as part of the second cohort. As the partnership began, Angela Pohlen joined CAB as the Executive Director, overseeing the school’s four campuses and managing partnerships, communications, fundraising, and enrollment. Pohlen described some of CAB’s activities which support their systemic approach to SEL: “Alana [Callahan, SEL Consultant] comes in and works with faculty on how to integrate SEL into the day. And we use the SELweb [Assessment tool] to really follow the data. Kids get assessed a couple of times a year so we can get a sense of what they’re learning and how well they’re utilizing the [SEL] tools. So, TFF has helped support both the implementation of the programming as well as collecting data to inform how we move forward.” Though, Pohlen explained, SELweb administration has not been as consistent as CAB planned due to pandemic-related constraints. CAB has also leveraged SEL to bolster family engagement efforts, with the goal of building connections and common language between the schools and students’ families. For example, one Principal begins meetings with families, regardless of topic, with an SEL practice.
SELweb is a web-based system designed by xSEL Labs to directly assess children’s understanding of others’ emotions and perspectives, their social problem-solving skills, and their self-control. SELweb is for formative assessment purposes and can be used to understand student strengths and needs and help plan and focus SEL instruction.
During the first years of the partnership, CAB found that evidence-based SEL programs, including RULER and Second Step, complemented its mission to provide a moral and spiritual education to its students. While SEL does not promote any faith-based or religious teachings, it does serve as a way to foster “safe and happy” students–a priority for CAB, Pohlen explained. Only 40% of CAB’s families identify as Catholic, so having an additional language set to promote ideas such as empathy, service to others, ethical behavior, and responsible decision-making, provides Pohlen and her staff with useful tools to support holistic student development and communicate meaningfully with all families, regardless of their faith.
Coming Around to SEL
In the first year of the investment, one CAB school leader struggled to constructively address ongoing physical aggression among a small number of students. CAB made the difficult choice not to invite several of those children back to the school the following year. Though CAB had chosen to prioritize SEL implementation, this particular leader had been unsure about its value. However, after that especially challenging and disheartening year, this leader expressed to Pohlen that “something has got to give” and that they “suspect the answer might be SEL” to proactively address student aggression. Three years into implementation, the leader is steadily utilizing RULER tools and terms in their practice, and is “100% sold that SEL must be part of a successful school.”
Across all four campuses, as more staff and leaders began to see the effectiveness of an explicit focus on skill-building and climate and culture, CAB reports that implementation quality improved, discipline policies were made less punitive, and student outcomes began to shift for the better prior to the pandemic.
Additionally, CAB continues to implement its strategic plan and increase sustainability as an organization through TFF-supported capacity building consultancies focused on, among other priorities: Fund development; Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion; and, Enrollment in response to pandemic-related needs. Pohlen believes in the value of working with an “expert third party” to catalyze mindset and practice shifts which her team can “take and run with.” CAB’s vision for improving organizational outcomes includes constantly building shared knowledge and planning for succession.
CAB’s Racial, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Journey
As part of their mission to equitably and holistically serve their students and families, CAB has embarked on what they describe as a “Racial, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (REDI)” journey. Working with Thought Partner Solutions, a CT-based consultant, they’re engaged in a yearlong process that begins with the Board and leadership and will eventually include staff and faculty. TFF is supporting this engagement, which began in January 2022.
As is the case for all Bridgeport schools, CAB serves a transient population of families experiencing high rates of poverty. CAB’s enrollment was declining pre-pandemic and dipped significantly once school closures occurred as families left the area in search of work and stable housing. CAB used TFF funding flexibly to help stabilize the organization’s finances and were able to offer in-person schooling during the 2020-21 school year using COVID mitigation protocols which boosted enrollment. Moving forward, CAB is focused on growing its now 900 student body and building its organizational capacity to secure additional grants to meet scholarship needs, as tuition is a barrier for many families.