St. Charles: Finding Safety in the Sea

Administrator Sr. Mary Agnes stand next to the aquarium at the St. Charles School in Rochester, NH.

Students come to St. Charles School in Rochester searching for a safe harbor. They find it in many unlikely places – including a special corner in one of the classrooms with some interesting “classmates.”

“Our kids faced so many challenges and crises in traditional school settings,” Sister Mary Agnes Dombroski, executive director of St. Charles School explains.

St. Charles School is a full-time licensed private provider of special education for students who face severe behavioral and emotional challenges. But this sort of education can’t happen in an ordinary classroom, and Sister Mary Agnes knew that.

That’s why she spearheaded a unique initiative to help these special students and to put parents at ease immediately. She created an aquarium.

The saltwater aquariums span the entire corner of one of the main classrooms. It’s comprised of two separate tanks and contains everything from clownfish to tangs to starfish and even a lemon peel angelfish. Each tank was carefully curated by Sister Mary Agnes herself to provide a stunning visual display but also to create a compatible and complete ecosystem, which includes live coral.

The effect is spectacular and instantly soothing, which was Sister Mary Agnes’ aim in the project.

“Time outdoors as a kid was very important to me,” explains Sister Mary Agnes. “You would just go out to play as a child, but it’s not like that anymore. I wanted to capture that incredible feeling as closely as possible for the students here.”

Through the generosity of donors, funds were available to use towards curating experiences that would enrich the learning environment at St. Charles School. Sister Mary Agnes used these funds to establish the aquarium in her effort to provide that magical, soothing power of nature right inside the classroom walls. Sister Mary Agnes spends a couple of hours a week – often at night – working on the extensive cleaning and maintenance, and upholding its pristine appearance.

Chairs sit in front of the aquarium at the St. Charles School in Rochester NH.

You can witness Sister Mary Agnes’ success in teaching the students to understand and recognize their emotions.

“We encourage them to check their emotional barometer,” Sister Mary Agnes explains.

The teachers and staff encourage students to recognize when their emotions are rising and when they must ask for a break. The aquarium facilitates this.

“The students know they can come here and take a break,” Sister Mary Agnes adds, pointing to the chairs kept in front of the aquariums.

The chairs are a visual reminder to the students that they can pause if they need it.

“They begin to understand when they’re reaching a point and walk away. They come to this tank and watch the fish, and you can see them physically relax,” says the classroom’s teacher, Laura Russell.

Having a physical space to go where they can safely relax has prompted other consequences.

“They want to learn about the fish,” Ms. Russell says with a smile.

The aquarium becomes a part of classroom learning as students pick a fish to study, research it and draw pictures depicting the fish and its habitat.

“We’re learning about tides and tide pools now,” Ms. Russell says. “The aquarium helps them to better grasp these concepts.”

What do the students’ parents think about the tank?

Sister Mary Agnes smiles when answering this question, “They come into this room, see the aquarium, and say wow. They know this time it will be different. This time their child will get the help they need.”

Administrator Sr. Mary Agnes looks at the aquarium at the St. Charles School in Rochester, NH.