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St. Vincent de Paul-style education turns 40

By MIKE HALLIDAY

The Mirror

The library at St. Vincent de Paul School is a good example of how the Catholic institution has grown over 40 years.

Today the library has its own space in the school's new wing. The students helped principal Wanda Stewart pick out the chairs to go with the tables. The honey-colored wood shelves were built by a member of the parish. A separate room houses the school's new computer lab.

When Stewart started as a teacher in the 1970s, the library was in an area about the size of a bedroom. It grew over time to take up a whole classroom after a partition wall was knocked out. Then the collection expanded into the hallway.

One summer a few years ago, the staff moved all the books and equipment to a larger room before it was filled.

The new library serves more than 300 students from kindergarten to eighth grade. It's part of the school's new $1.2 million wing that opened in 2003, adding a new science classroom and allowing kindergarten to be offered. The money was raised by parish members. A grant from the EL Weigand Foundation for $82,000 paid for startup costs, materials and equipment.

The school and parish are celebrating the 40th anniversary over the course of the academic year. Last Saturday, the annual fund-raising auction was a celebration of the school's longevity. There was also a recent volleyball match with the students facing off against the staff. The students won. Plans are being made for Mass at the end of the year to highlight the school's birthday.

The school's success can probably be attributed to the parish's commitment, supporters say.

Parents are involved helping in classrooms, at lunch and on special projects. It's a school requirement that each family commit 30 hours. They act as docents for art presentations where an artist is profiled and the students have a chance to try that style. One of the artists recently highlighted was 19th century French painter Georges Seurat. Copies of his work using the Pointillism style he created hung next to students' creations.

Stewart said the school is considered a part of the parish and not a separate entity with a different mission.

Most of the 470 private or independent schools in Washington have an affiliation with a religious denomination or faith, according to the state superintendent of public instruction. Many are in good health, both financially and in enrollment.

A majority of the students attending St. Vincent de Paul School are from the parish, which has about 2,000 families on the membership roster. More than 95 percent of the students are Catholic, according to Stewart. The school is not associated with the service organization that sells second-hand clothes and items.

When the school started in the 1960s, an order of nuns supplied the faculty. Today the teachers are from the lay community. They remain for several years and are certified with the state, Stewart said

Stewart began working at the school after her husband encouraged her to apply. She hadn't considered teaching in private schools.

Many of the teachers cover multiple subjects during the day and teach more than one grade level. Stewart said the system is different from what many people –– in and outside of education –– are familiar with. Homerooms usually combine two grades –– second and third-graders, for example. Students of varying academic levels are also put together for some subjects, including math. St. Vincent de Paul tried organizing classes based on aptitude, but found struggling students had better opportunities to succeed when the higher achieving students were there to help them, Stewart said.

Pat McMahon returned to St. Vincent de Paul after being a student there in the early 1990s. He teaches language arts to seventh and eighth-grade students and science and social studies to fifth and sixth-graders. He said he likes the variety of subjects and ages of his students.

A graduate of Notre Dame with a masters degree, McMahon said teaching in private schools was a career plan. Teaching at his alma mater wasn't part of that idea.

"It's fun being in this environment again," McMahon said.

Staff writer Mike Halliday: 925-5565, mhalliday@fedwaymirror.com

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