In Berlin, all South Jersey, education the Catholic way

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The buses were rolling in by 7:15 a.m. at Our Lady of Mount Carmel (OLMC) Regional School in Berlin. Wearing green T-shirts created for the first day of the new school year, teachers were easy to spot as they ushered students into the school gym. New shoes, fresh uniforms and bags of supplies on every arm were sure signs of the first day of school. Catholic school.

Ready to start the new school year, a student gets off the bus at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Regional School in Berlin on Sept. 4. Photo by Alan M. Dumoff

“I tell people we went from community college to Harvard,” said Deb Marsh, the parent of two girls in eighth and fourth grades.

The Marshes were new to OLMC in the middle of the last school year. Deb and her husband, Bob, both attended Catholic school and wanted the same for their daughters — even at the logistical and financial expense of a mid-year switch from public school.

“My daughter was craving the academic experience,” said Deb, noting that her then third-grader was introduced to homework for the first time after switching to OLMC. Superior academics, a caring atmosphere and a close community were among the changes they were looking for.

“We want them to be prepared for academics and for the real world,” said Bob, who also said that most of all they wanted the girls’ school day to start with prayer. 

And so it did. School principal Alice Malloy led students and their parents in prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance. While students and teachers were dismissed to their classrooms, parents were invited to stay for coffee, donuts and the fellowship that many claim is the hallmark of a Catholic school.

“It’s like a family here,” said Vanessa Rivera. “We have a great principal. The teachers care. The kids have many friends and work as a group.” Rivera’s sons, who are in first and sixth grades, have never been to any other school. And Rivera can’t imagine it any other way.

Waiting for morning prayer to begin, Rivera’s first grade son Antonio sat with a serious expression and his mom close at hand. Rivera predicted he would be lively and chatty in the classroom. She was right, but she didn’t mention how polite he would be in the process. Antonio spoke often, but never without raising his hand and saying, “Excuse me.”

Antonio Rivera raises his hand on the first day of first grade at Our Lady of Mount Carmel. Photo by Mary Beth Peabody

New first grade teacher Lisa Degen spent the early part of her morning getting to know Antonio and the other students in her class. Right away, the students noticed the colorful new alphabet rug, which includes sign language symbols for each letter and was donated by a classmate’s parents.

“What do you think about when someone mentions the word school?” Degen asked her young students.

“It’s awesome.”

“You write stuff.”

“I like math.”

“It’s important because you learn new things.”

“Letters and writing.”

If their response was any indication, Mrs. Degen, OLMC and this year’s crop of first graders are off to a great start.