St. Andrew: Come and See
Last Monday, the Notre Dame ACE Academies learned that President Donald Trump, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, and Florida Governor Rick Scott would be visiting St. Andrew Catholic School in the Diocese of Orlando on Friday.
This left Latrina Peters-Gipson, St. Andrew’s second-year principal, with about 96 hours to prepare her teachers and 345 students for a massive delegation of officials and their 35-car motorcade. Latrina and her teachers would need to clean the school, cover the windows with paper, move two classrooms from the second floor of one building to the first floor of another, sweep and mop all the floors, hang signs, refresh flowers, and spruce up the library. The ACE Academies team went to St. Andrew as quickly as possible, and our role would be simple: support Latrina and her teachers, and help prepare the school for a massive, complicated visit in a very short time.
St. Andrew’s student body is 97 percent minority, including 66 percent black and 19 percent Hispanic students. A large population of students comes from Haitian families, and many are from immigrant families living in Spanish- and Creole-speaking homes. About 85 percent of the students at the school participate in the free and reduced-price lunch program, and the same percentage receive support through the Florida’s Step Up for Students parental choice scholarship program.
We had an opportunity to speak with teachers and parents, some of whom said they had conflicting emotions about the visit. They expressed anxiety about differing political views, but they were determined to show the President what the children from St. Andrew could do. One teacher had requested the day off months earlier to accompany her daughter to an important out-of-town competition. When she told her daughter about the visit, and that she’d have to miss her meet, her daughter was distraught. The teacher teared up as she shared what she told her daughter: “I’m so sorry I can’t go with you, but I love my students. And this is an amazing opportunity for them to show him what they are capable of – because he needs to know.”
The principal in particular was determined to use this visit to shine a light on her scholars and to make sure they understood the impact they could have on their community. On Thursday morning, Mrs. Gipson gathered the student body in the church to tell them the news of the President’s visit. By then, word had leaked to the press and most of the children knew what was going on. She addressed the students and explained that they were helping to rewrite the story of their neighborhood, which is often in the news, just for all the wrong reasons. “But this week,” she told them, “Pine Hills is on the news, and people all over the world are talking about St. Andrew Catholic School…. When people see you wearing that uniform shirt, they are going to say, ‘That’s a student from St. Andrew — the school that the President went to!’ I know you are going to make yourselves proud, you are going to make your families proud, and I have to tell you: I am so proud of you.”
After the President arrived, Mrs. Gipson led the delegation on a tour and showed them the dynamic capacity of Catholic schools to serve the common good. The visitors heard directly from students, parents, teachers, and school leaders about the role that the Florida tax-credit scholarship program has played in empowering thousands of Florida families to choose the best school for their child.
As the President walked down the breezeway to visit the fourth and eighth grades, he passed three posters identifying the core values of the Notre Dame ACE Academies – seek, persist, excel, love, and serve. The first poster was written in Haitian Creole, the second in English, the third in Spanish, representing the native languages of most of St. Andrew’s families. Fourth-graders greeted him by shouting their goals: “College and heaven!” and explained that they were celebrating Florida’s 172nd “birthday” as a state, while eighth-graders in lab coats demonstrated their science experiments. ACE graduates will be pleased to know that objectives with observable and measurable verbs were posted prominently in both classrooms.
In the classrooms and in the following round-table discussion, the President met several current and graduated St. Andrew students, as well as parents and teachers. The delegation heard a dozen testimonials from these students, teachers, and parents, with half of them self-identifying as the children of immigrants or immigrants themselves. Each shared the critical role that education has played in their journey toward opportunity.
Marcus Millien, a St. Andrew graduate who now attends Bishop Moore Catholic High School, described St. Andrew as a tight-knit family that prepared him to reach his mother’s goal. “I told the President I work hard because my mother, who is an immigrant from Haiti, struggled to get the best education for me,” he said. “This is what drives me: to show my mom that she’s done well by attaining the American dream.”
English-language arts teacher Stephanie Jean-Jacques discussed her own Haitian roots when she described how the St. Andrew community engages families. “As a proud child of two Haitian immigrants, I understand the struggles of our parents and their children,” she told the President. “My experience in a Haitian-American household has allowed me to relate to my students and reassure parents that there are teachers here who can identify with their families.” She explained that families like hers and her students, “Education is a top priority, but unfortunately, education is often limited due to low income.”
Eighth-grader Bryanna Ortiz spoke of the difference she experienced since she transferred to St. Andrew from another local school. At her previous school, “My parents didn’t have to tell me I was failing. I knew I was failing,” Bryanna said. “I was just blowing through the system. At St. Andrew, it is such a big difference. Before I was failing, but now I’m a member of the National Honor Society.”
Another St. Andrew graduate, Artayia Wesley, described the impact of the St. Andrew community on her faith and family life. “(St. Andrew’s) brought me closer to a lot of people who helped me with my education academically and spiritually,” said Wesley, now a student at Bishop Moore. “It’s brought me closer to my Catholic faith.”
We at ACE are both grateful and proud to work closely with Latrina Peters-Gipson and her faculty. She and her team prepared St. Andrew’s students to show the President the hope and dignity of a Catholic education, not just through their efforts in the days leading up to the visit, but through their dedication every day of the year. They extended their “come and see” hospitality to share deeply personal stories of hope, witnessing powerfully that Catholic schools must be for everyone, regardless of their ability to pay, their religion, their race, or their national origin. These children of immigrants seized the chance to make their voices heard by people who are not often exposed to their perspectives.
The quotes from the round-table discussion also appeared in a previously published reflection.