By Steve Mangione

The theme of this year’s National Catholic Schools Week, “Catholic Schools: United in Faith and Community,” isn’t just an annual slogan for The Franciscan School (TFS) in Raleigh, North Carolina. It’s lived every day at the kindergarten-through-8th-grade school founded by Franciscan friars 24 years ago, where the academic, spiritual, emotional and social growth of its students is supported in a nurturing environment rooted in the vibrant Catholic Franciscan tradition.

“‘Community’ sets apart The Franciscan School from other Catholic elementary and middle schools. That comes from our Franciscan foundation of faith, service and generosity intentionally interwoven in everything we do,” said Dawn Smith, principal of TFS, whose 669-student enrollment makes it one of the largest Catholic schools south of Maryland.

There is a literal centerpiece to this community: the courtyard at TFS, where morning prayer – a Franciscan tradition – begins every school day.

“Morning prayer is an event!” said Br. Jim Sabak, OFM, who often starts it off with a thunderous, “Good morning, TFS!”

The entire student body, faculty, and even family members gather in the school’s courtyard promptly at 8:05 a.m., where students present scripture readings and intentions, offer the prayer of St. Francis, and are celebrated in the principal’s morning announcements for their birthdays and sports and academic achievements before eagerly rushing off to class.

“It sets the tone for the day and defines who we are as a Franciscan community,” said Ms. Smith.

Parents of prospective students are invited to attend morning prayer to experience TFS beyond the sales pitch – and it usually ends with the same six words, “We want to sign up – now!

Elementary school students hold their hands up in prayer as they stand in a school courtyard

Faith is a central part of the The Franciscan School. The community gathers for morning prayer every day. (Photo courtesy of The Franciscan School)

A priest sits on the steps of the altar and speaks to a group of elementary school students

Br. Jim Sabak sits and speaks with students after Mass. (Photo courtesy of The Franciscan School)

Students gather in the a school courtyard to listen to morning announcements

Students and staff gather in the school courtyard to pray, share news and celebrate achievements. (Photo courtesy of The Franciscan School)

TFS helps students achieve academic excellence through a program called STREAM, the acronym for Science Technology Religion Engineering Arts Math – whose cross-curricular lessons and activities reinforce curriculum concepts, encourage collaboration, and promote creative thinking.

The school radiates Franciscan tradition – a butterfly garden and greenhouse maintained by students, buildings named after Franciscan saints surrounded by nature preserves, and grade-specific service projects that respond to the needy in the Raleigh community. Kindergartners have 8th-grade prayer buddies, and other grade levels present stage performances for Christmas and the feast of St. Francis.

“Students are taught that wisdom is what they do with their knowledge – translating what they learn and accomplish into doing good for others. Franciscan tradition thrives at TFS because the foundational principles of prayer and caring for the poor are passed along by students, parents, administrators and teachers,” said Br. Jim, the connective thread to the once-strong friar presence at St. Francis of Assisi Church.

Since the friars’ departure from the parish in 2020, Br. Jim has continued to live on the campus of St. Francis of Assisi Parish with the diocesan priests while serving as director of divine worship for the Diocese of Raleigh and as master of ceremonies of liturgical events for the bishop. Besides impromptu classroom visits, Br. Jim can be found at the parking lot carpool during dismissal calling out every student by name.

“When the friars left, everyone said we would always be Franciscan – and that’s a tribute to what they left behind. The Franciscan charism inspires and encourages, and helps students take their place in the world,” said Mike Watson, a former TFS principal and one of the school’s founding parents.

Added Cristina Gautier, a 3rd-grade teacher and faculty member since the school’s inception, “The friars left a legacy that we want to continue. TFS isn’t just buildings, it’s a true community. Children are driven by the message of St. Francis to help others, and this stays with them throughout their life."