Peninsula Catholic Girls CC Wins VIS States

Going with a double dose today. Both of these articles appeared in the Town Square sections of the DAILY PRESS on Dec. 15. The first describes how the Peninsula Catholic girls cross-country team captured the school's first state title since the school changed names from St. Vincent, whose girls basketball team won a title in 1946. This appeared in the Newport News edition. The second article is about their coach, Susan Bender, who is from Yorktown. This article is more personal and deals with triumph after loss. It appeared the same day, but in the York County edition.

After over 100 years of existence, the female distance runners of Peninsula Catholic earned the school its first girls’ athletic state championship ever, taking first place in the Division 2 section of the 47th annual Virginia Independent Schools state cross-country meet, held on November 11th over the challenging hills of the 5,000 meter course at Woodberry Forest in Orange, VA. (Note: Editor Lynn Burke, who has written for the DAILY PRESS for quite a few years pointed out that the school’s other girls championship from 1946. How he knew that is way beyond me!)

The VIS meet is run in two divisions, and each school is entered according to the total number of males or females that are enrolled. Any school with less than 161 students of either gender is slotted in the Division 2 section. For the female harriers, a state title may have been won a couple of years before. Says Susan Bender, now in her 17th year as the PC girls coach, “we had a strong team several years ago (2008) and had a great chance to win. It turned out that our school had one too many girls (161) enrolled, so we were entered in Division 1.” In that race, the Knights placed 4th, ahead of larger schools such as Paul VI and Bishop Ireton.

Freshman Martine Hunnicutt finished an amazing rookie campaign, winning the race in 20:12, a full 13 seconds faster than runner-up Bethany Barclay of Norfolk Christian. For Hunnicutt, it was her second state championship. Two weeks before, she captured the individual title at the Virginia Catholic Schools meet in Newport News Park, running over the pancake flat course in 19:00.

At Woodberry Forest, Hunnicutt performed like a veteran, holding her ground among the top ten runners during the early stages. Bender noted her steady progress through the race saying, “She started out in sixth, and then moved up to third. But once she let loose and took the lead, that was it.”

Bender is impressed by her ace runner’s attitude toward the demanding sport of cross-country. “She’s a natural. But she is humble. Martine is the type of runner who works hard and doesn’t take her natural talent for granted.”

Newport News runners took the next two spots for the Knights. Sophomore Molly McKenna, figuratively following in the footsteps of her brothers who ran for boys coach Chris Peterson at PC, placed 11th with a time of 21:39. McKenna has been hampered with breathing problems this season. Says Bender, “Molly went out there with gusto, even though she was hurting.” Teammate Jessica Armstrong was the third PC runner, taking 28th place (22:42), just ahead of fellow co-captain, senior Celia Pincus, who was 33rd (22:52). Freshman Emmy Bennick rounded out the team scoring, placing 64th out the 193 runners that finished.

Bender attributed the team’s closeness, in races and among each other, as reasons for their culminating achievement. “The girls are close knit and have always supported each other. Our captains (Armstrong and Pincus) have experience. They have been there before.” With reference to their close races through the season, a one point loss to New Kent, as well as razor slim victories over TCIS conference rival Bishop Sullivan were pointed out as motivating factors. “We had a lot of close races through the season. It kept the runners on their toes. We realized that we had to give it our all, in races and at practice.”  The close calls helped, as the margin of victory at Orange was three points over Trinity.

The opportunity to repeat as state champions looks bright for the Knights, who are graduating only one of the top eight runners who finished at Woodberry Forest.

Led by sophomore Madison Strickland, the Denbigh Baptist girls placed fifth in the Division 2 race. Strickland placed third in 21:17, just ahead of freshman Keavy Baylor from Hampton Roads Academy, who was fourth in 21:24.


Team – 1. Peninsula Catholic 112, 2. Trinity 115, 3. Walsingham 116. 5. Denbigh Baptist 171.
Local Individuals – 1. Hunnicutt (PC) 20:12, 3. Strickland (DB) 21:17, 4. Baylor (HRA) 21:24, 11. McKenna (PC) 21:39, 28. Armstrong (PC) 22:42, 29. Hernandez (DB) 22:48, 33. C. Pincus (PC) 22:52. 45. Thomas (DB) 23:15, 51. Kane (DB) 23:29, 64. Bennick (PC) 23:48, 69. M. Pincus (PC) 24:11, 78. Ti. Groulx (DB) 24:37, 81. Stewart (PC) 24:42, 85. Alvesteffer (PC) 24:47, 93. Miner (PC) 25:05, 140. To. Groulx (DB) 26:56, 142. Graham (PC) 27:04, 155. Yu (PC) 27:56, 179. Madril (PC) 32:02.

A Mother's Wish

On November 11, 2011, local sports history was made. For the first time in over 100 years of the school’s history, a girls team from Peninsula Catholic High School won a state title, as the cross-country team defeated 22 other teams to win the Division 2 section at the Virginia Independent Schools meet at Woodberry Forest in Orange. For the runners and the school, it was a proud moment in the sun, a chance to bond and reflect on the hard work required to achieve such a lofty accomplishment. In a sense, on that serene fall day, holding the first place trophy in the winners circle amid the hilly terrain of central Virginia, a group of athletes could look back down the road that led them to the championship.

If only someone knew how rocky and bumpy that road was.

Coach Susan Bender knew. Bender, a Yorktown native, is in her 17th year as the girls cross-country coach at Peninsula Catholic. Her journey down that road started soon after the completion of school last June as she tried to cobble together a group of runners for summer workouts. The numbers were low and the coach was concerned by the prospect of not having a well-trained team put together in time for the team’s first meet in late August. With worry on her mind, Bender turned to her influence and guiding light, her mother Catharine.

Mom’s initial response was short and to the point. “Don’t worry, they’ll come.”

Catharine spoke with experience on her side. Three days after graduating from York High School in June of 1958, she had gone to work for York County. After 53 years, Mrs. Bender still worked for the county, most recently as the Chief Deputy Circuit Court Clerk. In fact, she was employed by York County until July 15, 2011.

That was the day she passed on.

In spite of the grief that comes from losing someone so close, Bender remembered her mother’s words which were now ingrained in her mind. “I used a lot of what my Mom said and she was right…. it worked!”

The coach found that she was not alone during the time of caring for her mother. On days when she had to miss workouts, former runners, such as Megan Foley, came to practice to put the team through its paces. Team co-captains Celia Pincus and Jessica Armstrong took on added responsibilities. Looking back at the reasons for her team’s successful season, Bender said, “the girls have always been close knit and have always supported each other.” Certainly, a good part of this bond was developed during long distance runs in the sweltering heat of June and July, as the team forged ahead without their leader, an avid road racer who is known to “hit the trails” with her team.

In her own moment of reflection, Coach Bender, who is also an elementary school teacher at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic School in Newport News, drew on her religious background while giving thanks. “We praise God for our wins and losses. Our blessing came from God and our girls knew where their success came from.”

Somehow, it’s easy to imagine that there was a particularly bright light shining over the Peninsula on the evening of November 11th,  a light beaming from a star named “Mother’s Wish.”


A Closer Look at the School Life of the ESL Teacher

Now that the pilot study on ESL teachers is complete from the assignment standpoint, I will spend some time over the Christmas break reviewing my findings, while transcribing the fourth interview. Including appendices, the report should end up at 41 pages -- not a bad start for a potential dissertation topic. Still, there is a long way to go with this study as even noted in my implications (not included here). I'm looking for commentary, particularly from any educator who has done research on this topic. The next post will show on December 27th, so a big Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all. Thank you for reading!!

In the Classroom

Interviews with all four of the teachers provided worthwhile information into the everyday existence of the ESL educator. Like many regular teachers, no day is the same as another. However, with ESL teachers, change is part of the normal equation.

The ESL teachers in this district had no set classroom, no set schedule, and worked with students of different comprehension abilities throughout the day. They also spent portions of the day pulling students from classes, pushing others into class, changing lesson plans on the fly. Their typical day is a juggling act, short on order, but full of surprises.

It is understood that the students are going through a major life change as a new student in America, so the teachers look to provide order and routine to their students who are living in a strange, chaotic world. Part of the attempt to provide order is to consistently draw up stable lesson units with strong lesson plans, attempting to bring predictability to the students who are developing their English speaking skills in an unfamiliar world.

Despite the attempt to provide structure, lesson plans are changed “on the fly.” Part of the adaptation process required of the teacher is being able to adjust lesson plans based on what methods are working to teach the students. Because of the uniqueness of the ESL students, it is not always obvious which method or technique will work in the classroom. The teachers have found that using references to pop culture are helpful. Students seem enamored by American television shows, commercials, celebrities and books. In several instances, teachers mentioned a popular commercial or book as a lesson tool, sometimes prompted by accident in the classroom.

This art of improvisation is also important to the ESL teacher. The ability to add or subtract an element to a lesson is a key to conveying the message of the lesson. The interests of the ESL student can be unpredictable. In one interview, a teacher mentioned having a lesson on New York City interrupted by a student who began to speak of a close relative who was killed in the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. The lesson suddenly changed from geography to history and other students shared personal stories of that day.

It is important to find common threads with the students because of their varying abilities of English comprehension. The level system is used as a quantitative measurement of linguistic ability and teaching students who are Level 1 (lower-level) the same lesson as a Level 3 (mid-level) student is commonplace. Just like in a regular classroom, lessons must be differentiated to accommodate students of all abilities. But with the added consideration of English as a second language to all of the students, this skill must be sharpened. The language barrier encompasses the teaching of every lesson and the teacher has to be aware of verbal and non-verbal cues from students to gauge the comprehension level. Two of the teacher subjects spoke of the coping skills of their ESL students, meaning that a teacher had to look for the student who could pretend to understand the lesson, but was truly having difficulty. This is probably a skill honed by the student in the outside world.


Each teacher has a favorite lesson. There are similarities in the favorite lessons. References to pop culture, television commercials and celebrities were previously mentioned, but there are others. Regardless of the subject or method used, the important element is to reach the student at their level, making the lesson relevant and meaningful.

Part of this goal is achieved in the difficulty of the lesson. The 7th grade teacher spoke of students who are embarrassed when they feel that a lesson is “too easy.” Even if they cannot comprehend the easy lesson, the student does not want to look “dumb” among classmates.

Making Connections

Teachers spoke about the importance of social language. This term deals with making the necessary connections with students and finding a common bond. The connection piece, just like with regular classroom teachers, is an important element to ESL teachers. However, one teacher spoke of the connection process. It can take a couple of weeks with one student and a whole school year with another. Another teacher spoke of “rolling over” with her students , in order to strengthen the bond with her students. By rolling over, the ESL moved up with her 3rd grade students, allowing her to continue working with them as 4th graders. While this may strengthen the bond, there is a potential drawback. Said the teacher, “I have to be aware to change up,” referring to her teaching style. “What I used last year may not work with them again, so I have to remember to use a different approach.”

Sensitivity to the students needs is important to the ESL teacher, but has a two-pronged approach. While showing empathy toward their own students, there appears to be an unwritten rule among the ESL teachers to make other, non-ESL teachers aware of the special needs of the students. A 7th grade teacher talked of providing professional development to her colleagues, in the form of a lesson presented during a faculty meeting – a lesson which discussed the special needs of the ESL student. Addressing the issue of teaching the teachers, she remarked, “I understand that the normal teacher has five classes, over 100 students and may have so many things to deal with that they don’t have time to consider the needs of my students. But, it is important for me to reach out and make them aware.”

Another way that ESL teachers bond with their non-ESL colleagues comes in the form of co-teaching lessons. Because the ESL student has the eventual goal of becoming accommodated with their English speaking classmates, they are “pushed into” regular classes for most of the day. To help ease the burden, when possible, harmony is reached by including the ESL teacher as part of the lesson. This is a common job requirement of all four teachers.

Induction to ESL Teaching

None of the teachers interviewed started their career as an ESL teacher. One was a probation officer who enrolled in a career switcher program to gain teacher licensure, while the other three started as regular elementary teachers. Their induction into the program, and their new career could be due to the newness of the program in the school system. One teacher spoke of attending college in Florida and having to earn an ESL endorsement, by virtue of state requirements. Still, she started her career as a regular elementary teacher.

Two other teachers were asked by the school system to complete training to acquire the endorsement. This request was made by the building administrator because of the initial need for ESL teachers.
In spite of their unlikely paths into teaching ESL students, each teacher loves what she is doing and commented that she would not change into another teaching job, preferring to stay with the ESL program. Their love for the program and their students is infectious.

Working with Resources

Each teacher was resource challenged from the beginning. A cursory look at each work area noted resources - books, posters, boxes of miscellaneous items, to have been gathered from different places. In a reflective moment, the 7th grade teacher noted, “If one of the teachers is throwing out an old science book, I might take a look and grab it because there might be a lesson, a picture, something that I can use later.”
Funding for the ESL program in this district appears to have been scant. However, with recent funding from the government in the forms of Title I and Title III grants, there are now more resources available for the ESL teachers.

However, old habits are hard to break and teachers will still scour through the building to find more teachable materials. However, to a person, each ESL teacher commented that their current funding and availability to resources is sufficient for them to do their job. There is some concern about how long these funds, which are renewable and not guaranteed, will be available.


There are three notable challenges which emerged from the teacher interviews. The first, making other teachers aware of the special needs of the ESL student has been mentioned.

The second challenge emerges as result of the state and federal expectations of each student. The third grade teacher shared thoughts on standardized testing. “The kids, actually, the students in general are tested too much. It creates a drawback to the learning process.” Thinking of her own students, she added, “the problem is that one of my students might get a 40 on a standardized test and be upset with the score. In that case, I may have to sit down with the student and look at the progress. It might be a matter of saying, yes, you earned a 40… but look, the last time you took this exam, you scored a 20. I don’t think that any other students actually doubled their score.”

The other challenge is the expectation for the ESL student to keep up with their American classmates. Because of the constant testing, precious classroom time is lost, adding additional pressure to the teachers. While students are improving and becoming more acclimated to the regular classroom, the complaint from the teachers is that too much is expected of them too soon. Says one, “They are expected to earn the same scores as the students who have been here (in America) their whole life. It isn’t very fair.”


Harris Finishes Sixth Year of HRA Tennis with 89-3 Record

For Shelby Harris, the game of tennis started as a diversion to keep her busy.

“My mom got me into tennis when I was about seven years old. After school, she would take about five or six of us to James River Country Club to play. It was something to do after school,” recalls the Hampton Roads Academy senior.

However, the youngster showed promise immediately. Within a year, she was working with coach Eric Christensen and developing the physical talents and mental aspects of the sport needed to succeed at a high level in the ultra-competitive arena of youth tennis. Aside from a foray into basketball, tennis has been the focus of Harris’ athletic career, one that boasts a long and growing number of titles and accomplishments.

The high school chapter of her story was recently completed as the Lady Navigators dropped a tough decision to rival Cape Henry at the Virginia Independent Schools Division II final. Earlier in the season, HRA had defeated Cape Henry to win the Tidewater Conference crown.

For Harris, it was the end of an extraordinary career, one which cannot be replicated, at least in terms of longevity. The Newport News native started playing for the HRA varsity squad as a seventh grader. Since then, the rule within the Tidewater Conference has been changed so that players must now be in eighth grade before joining the varsity.

In spite of her early arrival to the team, Harris finished her HRA career with a sparkling 89-3 record, and a #5 ranking among all seniors in Virginia. Among her achievements are five all-Tidewater Conference selections as both a singles and doubles player and three TCIS tournament MVP awards (one singles, two doubles). Also on the horizon are a probable fourth selection to the Virginia Independent Schools All-State first team and third selection as a Daily Press All-Star. The Navigator teams also won three VISAA state championships (2006, 2009, and 2010) during her tenure.

Harris likes the team element of tennis.

“I like individual sports, but it (tennis) can be a team sport.” Indeed, HRA has boasted many great tennis teams in recent years. This year’s squad included former Daily Press player of the year, junior Maureen Slattery, giving the Navigators a powerful 1-2 punch at the top of their lineup. Although, Harris will graduate next June, she notes that this year’s team, which finished with a 14-2 record, also had two freshmen among their top six players. “They will still be competitive next year.”

Harris will continue playing tennis, competing in various USTA (United States Tennis Association) events through the winter and spring before beginning her collegiate career next year at Mary Washington University. While the athletic side of her college choice was important, the honor roll student says there is another reason for her decision.

“I want to major in psychology and become a sports psychologist. Mary Washington is one of the best schools for that. Part of what I like about working with Coach Christensen is how he understands the things that I have had to overcome. I’d like to work with other athletes because I know how it feels.” Harris would also like to eventually coach at the collegiate level.

For Ray Smith, her coach at HRA, it is Harris’ mental toughness that separates her from other players.
“One thing about her is that since seventh grade, when she plays, she has no fear. Other players who hit with (velocity) tend to make adjustments. She doesn’t change her game.” Smith notes her maturity and leadership skills as assets and in no uncertain terms adds, “She is one of my last six year players. I’m going to miss her.”

Her initial interest in the Fredericksburg college came from an event last summer. “I was playing on the ITA (International Tennis Association) circuit and one of the events was open to juniors. It gave me the opportunity to play against college players, which was completely different from anything I’ve done.” During the tournament, Harris became acquainted a several of the Mary Washington players. “That’s how I got interested. Choosing Mary Washington is the best decision I’ve ever made.”

But she will miss her experience at Hampton Roads Academy.

“I always wanted to go to HRA. It is a great community and students and parents showed up for our home matches. I love it there.”

Shelby Harris Highlights

Career Record: 89-3
Accomplishments: Varsity Tennis since 7th grade
Tidewater Conference First Team All-Conference in Singles and Doubles: 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011
Tidewater Conference First Team All-Tournament in Singles: 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011
All-Tournament MVP in Doubles 2008 and 2011
All-Tournament MVP in Singles 2011
Virginia Independent Schools All State First Team: 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011
Daily Press First Team All-Star: 2009 and 2010
Won State Championship with HRA: 2006, 2009, 2010.
Runner-Up State Championship with HRA 2011 – Cape Henry won
Academic Honor Roll (3.5 GPA)
Ranked #5 in Virginia out of all seniors


Pilot Study Update - Part Deux

Sorry for the delay between posts. It is nearing the end of the Fall semester at William and  Mary, and I am waist deep in two projects. I did complete a project for Intermediate Statistics, but feel like I would feel better retaking the class and moving on to Advanced Stats. Being that I have not taken a Math class in 27 years, it was just difficult to re-grasp some of the concepts. Of course, a solid knowledge of Stats is necessary to conduct any research project (ahem..dissertation) that includes any quantitative data and Uncle Sam only funds quantitative projects.
The other project is my pilot study of the successful methods and pedagogical techniques used by ESL teachers in the classroom. My four interviews provided a treasure trove of useful information and I am looking forward to tonight's class presentation, as well as the completion of my study next week. For today, I wanted to share a bit of that project, basically, the answer to the question, "Why Study This Topic?"

Research Problem

            Classrooms across the United States are becoming more diverse. While a number of cities, such as Miami, Los Angeles, El Paso, and Phoenix have enjoyed a long transition into diversity, some areas of the country are only in the infancy stages of diverse demographics. One such area is the Hampton Roads region of Virginia. While other northern regions in the state enjoy diverse learning communities, the percentages of Hispanic and Asian students in Hampton Roads schools are still low. For example, the most recent demographic of the Newport News school system shows only 9.9% Hispanic students, and 2.9% Asian (2010). By comparison, in the city of Alexandria, these percentages are 30.7 and 5.0, respectively (2010).

 However, the percentages of minority students in the Hampton Roads region are rising and will continue to do so. To continue preparing for this change in demographics, school systems in southeastern Virginia will need to hire more ESL teachers in the near future. Currently, there are very few ESL teachers in the area. An inquiry to one school system with four high schools, seven middle schools and 24 elementary schools elicited a response that there were less than 10 ESL teachers currently employed in the entire system – and only one at the high school level.

At this time, it is not believed that any research has been conducted on the expected growth of Hispanic and Asian students to this region. There is also little evidence of any planning for this shift in demographics at the regional level. The intention is to examine the situation in one school system. By examining a locality with only several teachers, I intend to capture the essence of what is working. These results will be compared to results in a larger study, which will be conducted in a larger school system, probably in Northern Virginia. By identifying the successful methods and techniques which are brought into the classroom by ESL teachers in more diverse regions, the objective as a researcher is to make comparisons to the methods and techniques used by teachers in the Hampton Roads community and determine which ones are working successfully. This information can be presented to school administrators who will be in the position to seek and retain successful ESL teachers over the next several years.