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Northside Catholic Third-Grade Teacher Works to Break 'Rigid' Traditions

By Benjamin Woodard | December 2, 2013 6:43am
 Teacher Sara Burnworth has taught at Northside Catholic Academy for four years.
Sara Burnworth at Northside Catholic Academy
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EDGEWATER — Sara Burnworth knows all there is to know about a Catholic education.

The 25-year-old teacher has attended nothing but Catholic schools — including grade school, high school, university and finally graduate school — during her lifetime of education.

And now she teaches at one, too, just like her mom did before her.

"I feel at home in a Catholic school," she said from the third-grade classroom at Edgewater's Northside Catholic Academy, 6216 N. Glenwood Ave.

The Belleville, Ill., native started her fourth year of teaching this fall and has been recognized as an "energetic" and "adept" leader at Northside, which was just recognized this month as one of 50 private schools to be designated by the U.S. government as a National Blue Ribbon School.

Debbie Sullivan, Northside's principal, said teachers like Burnworth have broken the mold of traditional education to reach kids living in a different time than that of the ruler-wielding schoolhouse nun.

During the days of "cookie-cutter education," she said, "there was no identifying the strengths of the student and pushing that."

"She's very adept," Sullivan said of Burnworth. "She will notice if there's a student who is suffering" and will make a plan to help.

Burnworth, of Little Italy, studied psychology at Marquette University before attending Loyola University in Rogers Park, where she lived in a convent with other students and taught for the archdiocese of Chicago.

She said she had "grown to love" working with children in the classroom and makes a point to create an "engaging" environment for her students.

"It sounds like a stereotype," she said of a traditional Catholic education, "but my experience was pretty rigid growing up. I had the same teachers that my dad had at school. ... I had many teachers who did just sit at the desk — I think that that motivated me to have a different approach in the classroom."

She said she remembers other times when she feared retribution for asking questions in class.

"Sometimes I felt like the train was moving on without me. That was one thing I really, really want to avoid in my classroom," she aid. "I want it to be OK to say 'I don't understand it,' and I want them to feel like they can get as many explanations as they need until they understand."

On a bitterly cold day in November, less than a week before Thanksgiving break, Burnworth's 20 students climbed the stairwell, shuffled into the classroom and dumped their winter coats and gloves onto the ground before pulling their chairs off the top of their desks.

The 8- and 9-year-olds began their day pointing out 10 punctuation and style errors within two sentences written on the classroom's whiteboard.

Burnworth said on other days she collaborates next door with the school's second third-grade classroom.

"We'll do a lot of things that are just fun for the students," she said.

For social studies this year, the students were put into smaller groups and assigned the identity of a Native American tribe.

Then, she said, after learning about each culture the students participated in a "naming ceremony," where they got a new for the day that coincides with their tribe — and their personality.

One student, she said, who was known as both friendly and funny, was assigned a name that described an act sternly forbidden inside the stereotypical Catholic school classroom.

The name meant, Burnworth said, "He Laughs."