St. Francis of Assisi Introduces New Program of Skills Classes to Eighth Graders

The students concentrate on sewing their money holders and purses before the next step: sewing buttons. (Photo: Paula Katinas)

Life Lessons

ASTORIA — When Olivia Mura started the school year at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Academy, she had no idea that learning to sew a button would be as much a part of the curriculum in her eighth-grade class as math and social studies.

But there she was on a recent Monday, carefully holding her needle and thread as she tried to master the delicate art of sewing a button on a purse she had made.

“It was fun and also a bit challenging because I didn’t really get it at first. It’s hard to thread a needle. But if you pay attention, it’s going to be fine,” she said after completing her task.

Olivia and her fellow students are part of a grand experiment at St. Francis of Assisi in which the curriculum ventures beyond the four walls of the classroom and incorporates real-life lessons.

The weekly lessons, which began in April and are taking place over a 12-week period, include such things as basic sewing skills, how to write a check, household budgeting, proper nutrition, table etiquette, and health and wellness.

The academy is calling the new curriculum Vita — the Latin word for Life.

Along the way, students learned how to read a nutrition label and count calories, how to set a budget and stick to it, how to set a table for dinner, how to write a proper thank-you note and how to deal with their emotions.

Kaiya Ciacco, who especially enjoyed the sewing class, thinks Vita is a good idea. 

“It’s going to definitely help us in the future,” she said. “A lot of us don’t know how to do these simple things, so it’s good that we learn them now.”

Home economics courses, which were once prevalent in schools, have been abandoned in recent years due to budget reasons or replaced by more tech-oriented classes and ones that better prepare kids for college.

Vita was the brainchild of Maura Hill, a member of the Home School Association executive board. Hill approached Principal Anne Stefano with the idea and got an enthusiastic response.

“I thought it was a great idea because it fits perfectly with our goal of giving our students a solid, all-around education,” Stefano said.

Hill explained why she pushed for the program.

“I was trying to think of something that we could do for our students to give them an edge in life, in a sense,” she said. “There are so many skills that so many of us don’t know when we need them in the real world. For example, you should know how to make pasta. It’s not hard, but you should know how to make it.”

Hill not only invented the Vita course, but she’s also teaching it, working closely with eighth-grade teacher Theresa Kubina on each lesson plan.

At the end of the Vita program, students in the class were organized into four teams and competed against each other in a chocolate chip cookie bake-off. “The students really enjoyed it,” said Maura Hill, the parent who developed the program. (Photo: Courtesy of Maura Hill)

James Groll was such an experienced hand at sewing buttons — a skill he picked up from his great-grandmother — that he took time out to help fellow students at his table. “They were having a bit of trouble,” he explained.

For the sewing lesson, the students first made purses and money holders and then learned how to sew buttons on them.

There was some clowning around at the start of the sewing lesson, punctuated by one boy who jokingly yelled out, “I stuck myself in the arm with the needle!” But the students quickly settled down and concentrated on getting the job done. They paid close attention as Hill demonstrated how to sew a button and tried as best they could to replicate her actions.

The eighth grade was chosen to be the inaugural class for Vita because those children were going to graduate in June and the academy wanted to give them a parting gift, said Maria Kyriakopoulos, president of the St. Francis of Assisi Home School Association.

“When the students graduate and start high school, we can feel comfortable that they will have the tools to live a smart and successful life,” she said, adding that the academy hopes to make it a permanent part of classroom life.

Surprisingly, even with the sewing, nutrition, and finance classes, many of the students said their favorite lessons involved health and wellness. 

“We learned how to manage our emotions and how to stay physically healthy. — stuff that’s good to know,” Groll said.

Stress management is an important part of the curriculum, according to Hill, who said stress often results from feeling pressed for time. 

“I live by a strict schedule,” she added. “And I think because of that, I’m always able to get everything done, get it done properly, and not feel overwhelmed by it. I want to teach that to kids.”

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