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Mater Dei bringing high-school age hybrid education model into second year

By Deacon Kyle Eller
The Northern Cross

The high school students and faculty at Mater Dei Apostolate in Duluth may have had an easier time than most did when the coronavirus pandemic hit in the spring.

Mater Dei online class
When students from the Mater Dei Apostolate had to go online during the pandemic last year, the hybrid model of education they were used to made the transition “pretty smooth.” (Submitted photo)

“When we had to go online last spring, of course there’s challenges with it, but we had a pretty smooth transition,” said Marie Mullen, the apostolate’s executive director.

“It’s a hybrid model to start with, so it’s already more conducive, I think, to switching temporarily online,” she added.

That hybrid model, something that is being attempted elsewhere across the country as well, blends elements from more familiar approaches of traditional schools with classrooms and lockers on the one hand and the homeschool approach on the other. The students are technically homeschool students, but Mater Dei hires instructors for each class and provides an education center with classrooms, a lunchroom, lockers, and so on.

“So they have the experience of a traditional school in that sense,” Mullen said.

The apostolate rents and has renovated facilities at Holy Family Church in Duluth, and it was already using a learning management system with a remote learning component. So this past spring, instructors were able to continue teaching live at their normal times — just online.

And because of the way things are organized at Mater Dei, based around a home school curriculum, the students were already used to more independence and not seeing their teachers every day.

“So they’re already used to managing their own work to some degree,” Mullen said.

Now in its second year, Mater Dei is planning for in-person instruction, but not only is the remote option still in place, organizers are setting things up so that students can take advantage of it whenever it’s helpful to them. All the classes will be available online even when students are able to be there in person.

Mullen said there are already families planning to take advantage of that, including students who live in neighboring communities and may only come into town a couple of days a week. So if another shutdown happens, they’re ready.

Meeting a need

The idea for Mater Dei arose through Mullen and other families seeking an option for Catholic high school for their children. Mullen said she had not been a home school parent herself until it proved to be a good option for one of her sons, and she had hired tutors to help him with some of those classes.

That started the wheels turning. Why couldn’t that same concept work on a larger scale?

The hybrid model allows parents to enroll their children on a per-course basis, similar to college. Each course has an instructor. Some of the students continue to participate in extracurricular activities through public schools.

Part of the idea is to be organized in such a way that families that have never homeschooled or who may even find the idea intimidating can give it a serious look.

The apostolate began with ninth grade courses last year and this year is adding 10th grade as well, building as students come in.

And Catholic identity is built in. Not only is the curriculum Catholic, but the schedule is also, including daily Mass and opportunities for adoration.

Paying the bills

Another notable facet of the Mater Dei approach is the tuition: Unlike most similar efforts, Mater Dei doesn’t charge any, although the majority of families are participating in a Monthly Match Program that would be akin to a tuition.

“We feel very confidence and passionate about truly having this option available to all families,” Mullen said.

The Monthly Match Program means that there are individuals, businesses, and organizations that have donated to Mater Dei, but the apostolate doesn’t have access to the funds until there are monthly donors to match.

And if the pandemic wasn’t the curve ball it might have been for students and faculty, it was for finances, since a major benefit scheduled for May had to be canceled. That was going to feature a keynote speaker and the roll-out of the Monthly Match Program.

Going into year two

Mullen said the first year was tricky, with unexpected challenges involving building codes and permits and more, and they had to rely on divine providence.

“It was a lot of obstacles to get through,” Mullen said.

This year, there are 20 students enrolled and 15 faculty members. Mullen said with uncertainty in the public schools, there have been more inquires and may be more registrations.

“I definitely have had more inquiries,” Mullen said. “… They’re looking for these new options.”

You can learn more about the apostolate at www.materdeiapostolate.org.