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St. Mary’s builds on century of innovative education

Just ask the teachers: Three of the academy's dozen full- and part-time staff members are graduates of the pre-K-through-eighth grade school themselves. Of course, you could also talk to the parents of its 155-some students: A significant portion of them attended St. Mary's themselves before enrolling their own children."I'm a graduate of the school myself," said Maria Marrocco, whose children, Patricia, 12, and Anthony, 9, are enrolled at St. Mary's. "They can't do enough for the kids," said Marrocco, who lives in Woodside and is a member of the Home-School Association - Catholic schools' equivalent of the Parent-Teacher Association. "Every year it seems like there's something new." At a time when many parochial schools face a funding squeeze, St. Mary's, located at 70-20 47th Ave., has made a concerted effort to augment its curriculum with a number of award-winning programs and a state-of-the-art computer lab, said Principal Mary Rafferty-Basile.In June, the school became a member of Project Globe, a worldwide, hands-on science education program that offers students access to high-tech equipment, such as global positioning devices and weather meters. And teachers routinely upgrade their own instructional skills through St. John's University's "Training Innovative Educators" program, which sends professors into St. Mary's classrooms to showcase example lessons."They may have the money but we have so much going on here," middle school math and science teacher Ann Smith said of the city public schools.Located in Woodside's Winfield section - on a fuzzy border between that neighborhood and Maspeth - St. Mary's, also known as Blessed Virgin Mary Help of Christians, has been around in one form or another since the 1900s. The school is attached to the St. Mary's Parish, which at 150 years old is the oldest in Queens."They call it the mother parish," said Smith, a graduate of St. Mary's who has been an instructor there for three years.As a private, parochial school, St. Mary's faces a unique set of funding challenges."We don't have a nurse because we're not eligible because of low enrollment, so what did we do? - We had all our teachers certified in CPR," Rafferty-Basile said.St. Mary's is not alone in this respect. Catholic education across the city is feeling the squeeze. And the Brooklyn-Queens Diocese is currently weighing cost-saving measures that could include shuttering some schools.As other schools were instructed to do, St. Mary's officials submitted an operating plan to the diocese, outlining the role the institution plays in ensuring a Catholic education is available to students in the area. Although she would not reveal the specifics of the proposal to remain open, Rafferty-Basile said she was confident the school would avoid the chopping block.Rafferty-Basile, who supports the idea of a state voucher program, said she thinks the public school system could learn a thing or two from St. Mary's. Student tuition at the school is $3,432 a year - thousands less, she said, than the cost of educating one pupil in New York City public schools. And almost all St. Mary's graduates go on to private or Catholic high schools or respected public institutions, such as Bronx Science, Rafferty-Basile said.At least part of the reason St. Mary's can hold the line on tuition costs while remaining self-sufficient is a teaching staff that gives freely of its own time.In her off hours, Smith and other teachers help run a no-cost after-school program at St. Mary's in conjunction with Woodside on the Move, a non-profit that helps establish extracurricular programs throughout western Queens. Three days a week, almost 100 students from St. Mary's and surrounding public schools gather at the parish for activities that include chorus singing, theatre performances and guitar lessons."We have really changed the spirit in the school," said Rafferty-Basile, who indicated that academic success is only a portion of the equation. "The children are comfortable. They really don't mind coming to school. We identify their talents and really go with them."Since its founding, the tiny Catholic school has cut a wide swath in Queens. Rafferty-Basile said alumni live everywhere from Bayside to Brooklyn. Smith said the alumni association has more than 5,000 members on at least four continents."Although this is an educational institution, we're a family," Basile said.Reach reporter James DeWeese by e-mail at news@timesledger.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 157.

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