By Steve Mangione
There’s a school in Triangle, Virginia, whose students consistently perform well above the state and national average on standardized testing. But the sales pitch this week by St. Francis of Assisi Catholic School (SFACS) during National Catholic Schools Week (Jan. 28-Feb. 3) hasn’t been about its prestigious “blue ribbon” designation from the U.S. Department of Education, or even its academic excellence, technology resource lab, and project-based curriculum.
Ask anyone at SFACS about the allure of their school, compared to other Catholic schools in the Diocese of Arlington, and the answer is always the same: the Franciscan charism. Community and caring for those in need are distinctive components of the spiritual curriculum at SFACS, a culturally diverse pre-kindergarten to 8th grade school.
“Students at St. Francis understand their responsibility of caring for all God’s creation and making everyone feel welcome. They live the Gospel in caring for others. Our students and faculty – everyone associated with our school – are deeply engaged in the Franciscan tradition,” said Br. James Scullion, OFM, pastor of St. Francis of Assisi Church, the school’s parish.
Welcome and service to community comes directly from the school’s Franciscan roots, according to principal Sally Nicholson, Ph.D. “We are a warm and inviting community that welcomes everyone in a very accepting way. Service is a big part of who we are. Our students are taught that serving God’s people is serving God. It’s a very conscious effort of putting others first,” said Dr. Nicholson.
Br. George Corrigan, OFM, sharing his vocation story with students about how he became a Franciscan friar. (Photo courtesy of St. Francis of Assisi Catholic School)
Students compare notes during a group reading exercise. (Photo courtesy of St. Francis of Assisi Catholic School)
Students filling boxes during a food drive for St. Francis House. (Photo courtesy of St. Francis of Assisi Catholic School)
A teacher and students in science class. (Photo courtesy of St. Francis of Assisi Catholic School)
Students regularly collect coats for the local Salvation Army branch and hold food drives for St. Francis House, a parish ministry that provides area residents with basic life necessities. Students answer the call even when “community” is over 3,700 miles away; they raise money for “Pennies for Peru” – a program that, to date, has collected 2.8 million pennies ($28,000) to purchase books and educational supplies for students at their “sister school” in Lima.
“Since we provide education in the Franciscan intellectual tradition, service and citizenship are integrated with academics. We emphasize servant leadership, social-cultural responsibility, and community service projects,” said Elizabeth Rayhel, assistant principal and school library media specialist, and former SFACS student.
Added Liz Orille, director of admissions, “Everyone is welcomed with open arms – and that’s something special and very Franciscan about our school. We have non-Catholic families who have converted because of what they experience here, and non-practicing Catholic families who have come back to the Church. These joyful moments speak to the impact of our Franciscan environment of welcome and community.”
St. Francis School offers a faith-based, academically challenging curriculum in an engaging and caring environment that nurtures the spiritual, social, emotional and cognitive development of students. A weekly Mass with scripture readings and music led by the students; monthly recitation of the Holy Rosary; strong presence of Franciscan friars who visit classrooms, and special celebrations throughout the year – including the annual St. Francis feast day Mass at a local park – are among the unique offerings to students and their families, many of which are military and government workers at the nearby Quantico Marine Corps installation.
This week’s program at SFACS for Catholic Schools Week – whose theme is “Catholic Schools: United in Faith and Community” – includes a Care for Creation Club-sponsored activity in which students prepared hygiene bags and collected blankets for a local homeless shelter. Students are providing care packages to emergency first-responders as a way of acknowledging their service. Other activities include the school’s annual science fair and career day – when parish friars and other professionals share their vocation stories. But none of these activities are for show because celebrating faith, community, country, care for others, and academic excellence is what students and faculty do every day of the school year at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic School.