At Emsworth academy, education, spirituality geared toward 21st-century challenges

By Peter Smith / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Pittsburgh (September 5) – The day before their official start of school last week, uniform-clad students at Holy Family Academy spent part of Thursday morning swinging mallets, turning wrenches and carrying lumber as they assembled desks and laboratory tables that they’ll be using in the coming year.

All that pounding gave way to the hushed atmosphere of the school chapel where they gathered later in morning, as spiritual director David DiMichele asked them to sit quietly and listen to the musical prelude. “I can’t think of a more peaceful place than God’s house,” he said.

This combination of hands-on education in a spiritual setting makes up the model for the Emsworth academy, now in its third year after being launched against the headwinds of declining Catholic-school enrollment locally and nationally.

The academy now has about 125 students in grades 9-11, having added one grade each year with plans for a senior class next year.

Holy Family’s most distinctive aspect is that pupils spend one day each week in a work-study program at a local company, in fields ranging from energy to construction to law, learning about careers and basic workplace skills.

Much of their tuition is funded by donations from the companies, which can be eligible for state tax credits or similar benefits. Families, depending on income, pay a portion according to their ability.

The format has drawn students from throughout Allegheny County and beyond who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford a private education, and in many cases it prepares them for fields that anticipate worker shortages. They are also learning robotics and other new technologies.

“We’re using our resources to meet a gap,” said Sister Linda Yankoski, president of Holy Family Institute, which launched the academy in 2014. “This kind of education prepares kids for 21st century jobs that don’t exist yet, and for kids who don’t have the networks” that alumni of elite schools might have.

“We think it’s a very viable model for Catholic education,” said Matt Russell, director of advancement at the National Catholic Educational Association. It can “help ensure we can provide Catholic education for all the kids and not just if you can pay high tuition.”

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