Gov. Lee highlights ESA student at Holy Rosary during annual address

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Natalia Serrano, a fourth grade student at Holy Rosary Academy, works on an exercise in class Thursday, Feb. 9. Serrano is an Education Savings Account (ESA) student. Her success since starting at Holy Rosary was highlighted by Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee during his State of the State address Monday, Feb. 6. Photo by Katie Peterson

On Monday, Feb. 6, Gov. Bill Lee delivered his 2023 State of the State Address and one of many highlights was an update on the Education Savings Account (ESA) Program.

And during that update, Holy Rosary Academy was on full display as he shared the success of fourth-grade student Natalia Serrano.

“In just the last six months, hundreds of families living in underserved zip codes have had an opportunity to pick the best school for their child through our Education Savings Account program,” Lee said. “Our ESA program is changing lives, and states across the country are following Tennessee’s lead.

“I have always believed that we should strive to have the best public school system in the country and provide choices for parents,” he said. “There are some who claim you have to choose either/or, but these two ideas are not in conflict. In fact, excelling in both is how we can lead the nation in education. I want to introduce you to some Tennesseans who are proof of that idea.

“Natalia Serrano, a fourth grader here in Nashville, was struggling with reading and writing and rarely spoke in class,” Lee explained. “Her parents and her older sister could see that she was on a failing path. They thought that if they could just get her into a different school with smaller classes, she would have a chance.

“When we launched the ESA program, Natalia’s family applied and were soon enrolled at Holy Rosary Academy,” he added. “Just since last fall, Natalia has already jumped three reading levels. Her goals for this year are to read an extra 30 minutes every day and to study hard for her weekly spelling tests. She also joined the choir and a Bible study. Natalia found her voice.”

“Every child in this state deserves access to a high-quality education,” he concluded. “Please join me in welcoming Natalia Serrano and her family. We are so proud of you.”

The ESA Program was adopted by the Tennessee General Assembly in 2019, to provide funds, much like a scholarship, to eligible families in Davidson and Shelby Counties who want to send their children to a participating private school in the area. Funds can help families pay for tuition, books, and more. Thus far, 40 students are attending Catholic schools in the diocese through the ESA program.

Kimber Halliburton, principal of Holy Rosary, said they didn’t realize the governor would be mentioning Serrano or Holy Rosary. “We had no idea.”

In January, “a number of our Catholic schools were asked by the state if we would be willing to offer up some success stories for the Tennessee Department of Education and the governor’s office, but they did not specify what it would be used for,” Halliburton said.

So, Halliburton and Alaina Dougharty, admissions director at Holy Rosary, said they interviewed several teachers who had ESA students in their classes, but when Cathye Edwards brought up Serrano, it was clear that she was the right choice.

“Her story was really the most compelling to us,” Halliburton said.

Although Serrano has thrived academically, Edwards said, she really noticed her success socially.

“Her family talked about how she used to come home and go right to her room. Her demeanor when she came to us seemed as if she was just dejected, and school was hard for her,” Edwards said. “But we have just encouraged her and loved on her … and soon we could just see her start blossoming.

“She is thriving,” she added. “Natalia is just so happy. She likes school now, and she’s making friends. I could just tell the biggest difference in her demeanor. She started as a child that came into school and didn’t really care, but now she’s really trying, and she loves it.”

Serrano said she loves being at Holy Rosary.

“It’s wonderful, and it has a lot of stuff to learn,” Serrano said, noting her love of social studies and reading chapter books. “I love being here.”

Serrano is one of 13 ESA students currently at Holy Rosary. Come the fall of 2023, Halliburton said they’ll add 25 more to that list.

“The ESA students that we have, they are very serious-minded. They really value being here, and there is just a joy on their faces when they come to school here every day,” Halliburton said. “They really are embracing the Catholic culture here, and they are getting involved in extracurricular activities. They and their parents have really done an excellent job of being a part of the total community.

“They’re really good students, and the effort is definitely there,” she added. “I think that comes from an appreciation of being able to come to school here.”

“For all those reasons, that’s why I decided, ‘Hey, let’s get 25 more of these students,’” Halliburton said. “Alaina and I have really committed a lot of hours to this. … It has really paid off, and I feel really good going into next year.”

Dougharty agreed.

“It makes me happy to see these kids come here and really love being in this environment,” Dougharty said. “It’s been a lot of work figuring out how this all works because it’s new, but it makes it all worth it when you see the kids happy and so thankful to be here.”

Halliburton said she thinks the success of the ESA students like Serrano has to do with the dedication of the teachers, first and foremost.

“Our motto is ‘on your feet, not at your seat,’” Halliburton said. “You walk into a classroom, you’ll either see teachers up teaching content, seated by a student giving one-on-one instruction or a student being called to the teacher’s desk, but either way you’re going to see our teachers engaged with our students. Period.

“Our teachers also hold very high expectations of the boys and girls. We want to challenge each student to reach their greatest potential and capacity in everything that they do,” she added. “Our No. 1 objective is to lead people to Christ, to lead our boys and girls to salvation, and I think that all carries over into the academics and everything that they do. When you love the Lord, you are called to excellence, and that’s what we say all the time.” 

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