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St. Cecelia: A school where teachers send their own kids

St. Cecelia Interparochial School students practice a cheerleading routine.
Published Apr. 8, 2016

CLEARWATER

Tucked away in the back of the gymnasium, Marreen Majer's office is covered with pictures of her students. ¶ There are photos of cheerleading squads she's coached, her former student's newborn child and countless more from weddings and yearbooks and confirmation ceremonies, reminders of nearly a quarter-century of teaching.

As a 24-year veteran of St. Cecelia Interparochial Catholic School, the school's athletic director has been a coach and a gym teacher for thousands of children, and a confirmation sponsor or a wedding guest for many of them. She sent her children here, too, and she attended it herself as a kid, back when nuns taught the classes.

"It's a family here," said Majer, 58. "Right here, all these kids — that's what I love about working here."

St. Cecelia, which accepts students from 3 years old to the eighth grade, was named one of Tampa Bay's top workplaces this year for the second time, notching the No. 18 spot among small employers.

Seven schools made the cut this year, but St. Cecelia took the top spot among them.

So what sets it apart? Employees say it's the sense of community.

"We pray for each other," said Eileen Peters, technology integration specialist. "We actually like each other."

Peters, who is new to St. Cecelia, said the children have been well-behaved and the parents involved in her first year at the school. She works with students across age groups, helping them use technology and showing teachers how to use computers and iPads to drive home lessons.

There are other benefits, too: The administration is good about not micromanaging, Peters said, and she gets to teach kids about staying safe online or push them to use technology to be creative.

Before she started teaching, Peters was a software engineer at Honeywell. But when she was in high school, she wanted to be a teacher. Now she's getting a chance.

She started volunteering at another school as a stay-at-home mom, which led to a part-time job and, now, a full-time position. She likes helping her students as they make videos about the political system or the rite of baptism, or share their artwork with each other via apps on their required iPads.

It doesn't hurt, she added, that the school has a technology staff of five, so she can focus on teaching students, not fixing printers.

"To see the kids when they get it or they have ideas, and they're so interesting," Peters said. "I love it when they go, 'Oh!' 'Cause then you're going, 'the light bulb just went off'. "

The school, which has nearly 500 students and 56 staff members, has also raised its ambitions in recent years. It was named a federal Blue Ribbon School in 2010, and its middle school joined the International Baccalaureate program in December 2014.

St. Cecelia plans to apply this fall to join the elementary school IB program, which would make it the only private school in Pinellas County that's part of both, said Maryanne Del Monte, director of development and admissions.

But the real measure of the school isn't the accolades or accreditations, Majer said.

It's the fact that so many of the children she works with were sent by other teachers or her long-ago classmates — that they've experienced the school firsthand and want their kids to go there now. Or the fact that the same teachers come back year after year. Or that when her mom died a few years back, the school rallied to her side and sent flowers, and one of her students sang at the funeral.

"It's kind of just more of a family than a workplace," Majer said. "I think they like that people have been here a long time. I think that keeps people coming back."

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