School is the keeping of a promise

December 25, 2004|By Patricia Meisol | Patricia Meisol,SUN STAFF

This is the last in a series of occasional features highlighting people in the Baltimore area who exemplify The Sun's annual Spirit of Sharing Holiday Campaign.

During the four weeks of Advent, the girls at Sisters Academy made a paper chain, writing on purple paper the ways they were preparing themselves for the Christ child's birth and, on white paper, their observations of actual paths others have taken.

It's an Advent chain, and by the time they were done it draped around the morning gathering room and went more than halfway down one hall, a 30-yard-plus trail of intentions and realities. Like everything about the school this year, it is a tradition in the making.

The Sisters Academy is a new Catholic middle school for girls, intended to serve Southwest Baltimore but, for lack of a building, opened in Lansdowne in September. It started with a single class, this fifth grade of 22 girls who begin the day in a circle, praying and greeting one another. Leading up to Christmas, their "circle of peace and respect," as they call it, started with a Bible reading and ended with each girl's addition to the Advent chain. Few knew one another before September, but each day they become not just a class but a school.

"The big deal is making a transition to a faith-based school," says Sister Debbie Liesen, the principal who belongs to the School Sisters of Notre Dame. The next step, she says, is moving from faith to action.

That is true for the school as well; it began with an idea that the students and teachers are now turning into a reality.

One day last week, the circle was led by Mary Perez and Carli Peddicord, both 10 and a tad nervous. Their Bible reading didn't miss a line of Samuel, though, and they lit the candles in the Advent wreath like pros. The reading about the story of Jesse, father of David, drew pointed comments from some girls: If God could choose David, a shepherd "who wasn't that good looking," as king of Israel, volunteered Danielle Hipkins, "that's how you should choose friends. It depends on how they act." Nothing else matters "but what's in your heart."

The morning circle followed breakfast in the cafeteria of the old St. Clement's School where Sisters Academy is housed temporarily. It is intentionally small and, eventually, it will serve grades five through eight.

The school is modeled after others in the Nativity Educational Centers Network, a group of 55 nonprofit faith-based schools around the country financed by private donations and serving students from low-income families. The network includes St. Ignatius Loyola Academy for boys in Mount Vernon and the co-ed Mother Seton Academy in Fells Point. Seven of the schools are for girls only. The idea is that an investment in the girls is an investment in their communities.

The hardest part has been "to get 22 girls from 22 educational backgrounds, let alone 22 different families" on the same page, says Sister Virginia Brune, SSND, the academy's lead teacher. "So we are trying to develop a program that really meets their needs." This has led the school to test for everything from eyesight problems to emotional, social and speech skills.

"It's been a real struggle to get everything going," Sister Virginia says.

All the hard work has impressed parents, though.

Tom Lovill has been to three parent-teacher conferences already for his daughter, Carli Peddicord, whom he describes as a good student who has become even more enthusiastic about school. The change in Carli is huge, he says, but "what really threw" him was the school's dedication to each girl's overall well-being, resulting in an offer from teachers to evaluate her motor skills.

"I knew then what this program is giving her," he says.

Sisters Academy runs from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., with the morning devoted to core academics and the afternoon reserved for drama, music, library, computer, physical education and team sports. It counts on volunteers besides a staff of five. Tuition is free; each girl has a sponsor who provides a $5,000 scholarship.

After building a strong academic program, the school's second challenge is to build a sense of community, Sister Virginia says. "We came in with nobody knowing each other." That was one reason the morning prayer circle, except during Advent, was designed to include a few minutes for the girls to share something about themselves. Already, they have developed a bond, speaking of themselves as "we" during school trips.

Every day, the girls perform chores, and every week they perform a service for someone, such as cleaning up the grounds or, as they did last week, joining residents of a nearby nursing home in song.

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