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Sparking Hope: Parishes Unite to Support Award-Winning School in DC

By: Bill Schmitt

On May 11, when St. Francis International School in Silver Spring, Maryland, celebrates its weekly Mass for more than 400 students—kids who trace roots back to 54 countries—one Scripture verse might be ideal for shared reflection:

“See, I am doing something new! Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? In the wilderness I make a way; in the wasteland, rivers.” (Isaiah 43: 19)

That theme of trusting God’s power to spark hope can resonate on multiple levels when the congregation welcomes nonprofit group called Little Friends for Peace. St. Francis International School’s principal, Tobias Harkleroad, has planned to mark a recent partnership with Little Friends for Peace, which helped to solidify a distinctive Catholic identity for the six-year- old school. It also won a 2016 Innovation in Catholic Education (ICE) Award from Today’s Catholic Teacher.

"...the community was determined to sustain excellent educational options for disadvantaged children."

Harkleroad says the partners’ award-winning campaign to create a culture of peace is one expression of a Franciscan charism now springing forth. Other charisms at the school, which is housed in a parish administered by Franciscan friars, include a commitment to serve the poor and the marginalized as well as a reliance on divine providence.

Trusting in divine providence but confronted with cascading school shrinkage and consolidations in multiple parishes, including St. Mark the Evangelist and St. Camillus where Harkleroad was principal, the community was determined to sustain excellent educational options for disadvantaged children.

“Instead of waiting for St. Mark’s to close and simply planning to attract their students, we asked, what if we throw in our lots together,” recalls Harkleroad. He and the Franciscan pastor of St. Camillus produced an unusual plan, which gained buy-in from their own parish community and St. Mark’s parishioners, as well as leaders of the Archdiocese of Washington.

“St. Mark’s School closed, and we voluntarily closed St. Camillus, and we came together with a new, long-term plan to preserve as many of the resources from each community as possible—to grow, to utilize to the max the two schools’ potential,” Harkleroad says. The two pastors and two principals worked diligently in coordination with the archdiocese to conceptualize a new school while modifying the St. Camillus school building to make way for a larger student population.

"Today, the identity boldly reflects a new America, welcoming Latino, African, Caribbean, African-American, Asian and white families."

Many local immigrant families provided labor and talents in reconstruction. They responded to the invitation to try out their new Catholic K-8 school, boasting efficiencies of scale for varied, sustainable services, a vision of grassroots cooperation amid diversity, robust financial support from a total of four parishes plus archdiocesan scholarships, and a new name. What had been St. Camillus School opened in August 2010 as St. Francis International School.

Today, the identity boldly reflects a new America, welcoming Latino, African, Caribbean, African-American, Asian and white families. “Almost 80 percent of our kids have at least one parent who was born in another country, and about 52 percent are considered high-poverty.”

Enrollment, now at about 410, is expected to grow. Budgets are balanced. Long-term plans call for the old St. Mark School building, now used by a charter school, to eventually become a second campus for St. Francis International. The commitment to poor and working-class immigrant families is crucial, Harkleroad says. The 2016 ICE Award saluting leadership in Catholic identity—along with a separate 2015 for leadership in diversity from the National Catholic Educational Association—helps affirm “the ability to preserve Catholic education for marginalized groups.” It also confirms “the ability to rely on God’s grace” through years of risk-taking and cultural transition.

Mass on May 11, closing the school’s sixth year, will welcome Msgr. John Enzler, archdiocesan director of Catholic Charities, in gratitude for that group’s grant enabling the successful partnership with Little Friends for Peace. The partnership energized a “Make Us Instruments of God’s Peace” campaign, complementing the community’s hope in the future, according to Harkleroad.

“We’ve sort of moved out of the establishing phase,” where two schools’ cultures and traditions were blended into something new. “A polishing phase,” backed by a renewed mission statement and now-explicit charisms to help unify 54 national backgrounds, will equip St. Francis International School with the best of the old and the new.