Family devotion key for 50 years of school success

Progress: St. Joan of Arc has grown from one classroom to a building full of teacher and community support.

February 15, 2004|By Amanda Ponko | Amanda Ponko,SUN STAFF

Fifty years have passed since St. Joan of Arc Catholic School opened its doors in Aberdeen, and this year, the little school is finding good reasons to be proud of its progress.

Harry and Barbara Webster of Aberdeen, Eucharistic ministers and volunteers to the church and school, have had seven children and 13 grandchildren attend St. Joan of Arc.

The children received quality schooling, Harry Webster said, while establishing Christian values. "The children not only get an education but also maintain their faith," he said. "I think that is extremely important."

Laurie Dawson, director of development and a parent of two St. Joan pupils, said she feels the success of the school - which was marked with a celebration earlier this year - is a result of the method of teaching. The approach is to unite teachers with pupils and, more importantly, with their families, creating an extensive support system for each child.

A pupil's family must provide 20 hours of service to the school over the course of the year, Dawson said. A fine is imposed for each hour unfulfilled.

"The school really believes in a partnership between the home, the school and the student," she said. "All three working for the best interest of the child."

The school opened in 1954, with two Sisters of St. Casimir teaching grades one through four in one classroom above the church.

Today, 228 children in kindergarten through eighth grade attend St. Joan of Arc. The school has 15 faculty members, none of whom is a church official.

The children, dressed in collared white shirts, navy slacks and plaid jumpers, sit in classrooms that are adorned with a crucifix and statue of the Virgin Mary.

The school offers a state-of-the-art computer facility, Spanish language resources and newly added handicapped access, including an elevator.

The school has no gymnasium, cafeteria or auditorium, but Dawson said she felt that the educational system works very well for the pupils, including her children.

"I believe in it," she said. "The school is so small, we work as a family and watch out for each other and each other's kids in a supportive way."

Donna Vernon, who has been teaching at St. Joan for 24 years, said she believes the school provides a good foundation for the children's high school years. She has no intention of leaving any time soon.

"The faculty works well together," she said. "I'll retire before I go anywhere else."

A third-grade teacher, Vernon also coordinates the school's bowling club, which consists of almost half of the pupils. Other clubs include a computer club, a yearbook club, bell and children's choirs and the Beacon program, which is unique to St. Joan of Arc.

Beacon stands for Be A Con-fident Student, Dawson said. The program provides support to pupils, offering help with the curriculum, including the school's unusual mathematics program.

All pupils take a math-placement exam to determine their proficiency, she said. Children are then sorted into groups, typically consisting of 12 to 15 students, and then taught by one teacher. Every faculty member in the school - including the Spanish, art and music teachers - has a math group to teach. The pupils are tested throughout the year to make sure they are in the proper math category.

The pupils begin each day with a prayer and attend Mass every Thursday.

Dawson said that although she and her two children are not Catholic, she believes that her children's religious education has helped further her family's faith.

"Religious teachings are values-based," she said. "I feel that any little thing that can help [the children] get through life, go for it."

By the school's 100th anniversary, St. Joan of Arc hopes to expand to encompass a separate middle school building for sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders as well as an auditorium and gymnasium.

The Websters said they volunteer many hours to maintaining the church and the school. Children receive an exceptional education and value system at the school, Harry Webster said. But simply enrolling a child in Catholic school is not a sure way to provide a child with a secure future, he said.

"Private and parochial schools aren't the answer unless the parents are involved," he said. "Parental involvement is the best part of this school."

Yaury Hill, 12, who moved to Aberdeen in September after living in Germany, said he would not want to attend anywhere but St. Joan.

"We do a lot of really fun things," he said. "Everyone is nice here. I feel very at home."

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