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Friday Feature: Holy Family Catholic School

Colleen Hroncich


Catholic schools are known for many things—quality academics, character formation, a family‐ friendly atmosphere, teaching self‐​discipline, and more. They aren’t necessarily known for innovative instructional approaches. But Holy Family Catholic School in Jacksonville, FL, could help change that.

In many ways, Holy Family is a pretty traditional school. Children are in regular grade levels based on their age, they are in classrooms with normal desks and teachers who are instructing them, and classes change at regular intervals. But within that traditional framework, the school has adopted a program called D.E.N.S., Differentiation, Enrichment, and Needed Support, to meet the individual academic needs of students. The D.E.N.S. program aims to maximize student potential by helping them grow and thrive academically, which will build confidence and pave the way for future success.

I was fortunate to tour Holy Family in February, so I got to see firsthand how the D.E.N.S. program operates. Lauren May, Director of Outreach at Florida’s Step Up for Students, was my tour guide. She said the school is full, with 25 kids in a class, so pulling kids for individual and small group work lets them provide that personalized help.

For D.E.N.S., she explained, “they look at test scores and they get teacher feedback, and they pull kids based on whether they’re above or below grade level. Then they work with them on specific subject areas or goals.” She told me about one student she knows who was in the 30th percentile at the beginning of the year and by December was in the 90th percentile.

Jennifer Webster is one of the learning support staff members who runs the D.E.N.S. program. She explained that the program uses a push in/​pull out system. For children who are struggling a little bit, learning support “pushes in” to the classroom and works with small groups to help them on specific topics. Children who are struggling more are “pulled out” to work with them individually or in small groups separate from the large group lessons. The support is most intense in grades K‑3, with the goal being to get the children on track so they won’t need as much help in later grades.


It’s not only struggling students who receive individual attention at Holy Family. There’s also an enrichment program to help challenge students who are above grade level. In grades two through five, Jennifer and her colleague Amy Galloway pull students out once a week to do activities that go beyond the classroom curriculum. In middle school, the teachers incorporate enrichment activities in their classes.

Florida has one of the most robust school choice landscapes in the country, with every child eligible for an education savings account that can be used for private school tuition and a variety of educational expenses. Most students at Holy Family receive a scholarship, which helps the school afford to offer the D.E.N.S program. As these programs continue to expand, more schools may follow Holy Family’s lead in offering such individualized support for students.

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