"The nuns were like our grandmothers," and the school was like a family, said Melissa Rodgers.
The school has changed drastically since its founding in 1828 by Mother Mary Elizabeth to teach the children of slaves to read the Bible.
By 1974, after St. Frances had become a girls boarding school, enrollment among families who could afford tuition was dwindling. School integration meant that African-American girls had plenty of other educational opportunities.
FOR THE RECORD - A photo caption on Page 1A Monday misstated the name of a student at St. Frances Academy. She is Jade Brace.
Although the archdiocese wanted to close the school, the sisters decided to stay open and change the focus. They dropped entrance requirements and turned it into a day school for boys and girls, concentrating on children from urban neighborhoods. While they still have a lot of students who come from strong families, they also have many who are suffering the effects of poverty and drugs.
There are now more boys at the school than girls, and Sister John Francis said she believes it is because parents fear they might lose their boys to the streets.
"They need a new environment where they don't have to be someone they are not, where they don't have to look or be tough, be a bully or deal drugs," she said. "A lot of times that is a great relief to our students."