On the last school day before Halloween, Father James Stack, St. Jerome's pastor, compliments fourth grader Alex Edgecombe for dressing as a priest. Other students portrayed saints and classical figures from history and literature.
On the last school day before Halloween, Father James Stack, St. Jerome's pastor, compliments fourth grader Alex Edgecombe for dressing as a priest. Other students portrayed saints and classical figures from history and literature.
These days, St. Jerome would feel right at home at St. Jerome School in Hyattsville. In fact, the great Doctor of the Church was among the saints, historical and literary figures whom St. Jerome students dressed as on their last school day before Halloween and All Saints Day.

St. Jerome (331-420), a brilliant scholar who revised the Latin translation of the New Testament and later translated most of the Old Testament from its original Hebrew into Latin, is the patron saint of the parish named in his honor in a working class neighborhood in Hyattsville. Last year, in the midst of enrollment and financial challenges at the school, the St. Jerome Parish and School communities came together for consultations, parents rallied to meet fundraising and enrollment goals, and a committee of volunteers devised a classical curriculum, which stresses the classics of theology, literature and history.

That classical model of learning was on vibrant display at St. Jerome School on Oct. 29, as the pastor, Father James Stack, and the principal, Mary Pat Donoghue, visited classrooms, where students' costumes seemed to reflect a joyful celebration of learning and of the school's Catholic identity.

A first grade boy was dressed as a bearded St. Jerome, the school's patron saint, and he stood near another boy dressed like Abe Lincoln, wearing a stovepipe hat. Reflecting the school's classical curriculum, several children dressed as figures from Greek mythology, including a little girl with toy snakes in her hair portraying Medusa, a girl depicting Athena, the goddess of wisdom, and a boy acting as Zeus, the king of the Greek gods. Nearby, a little girl was dressed as Alice in Wonderland, with her trademark blue and white dress.

In a fourth grade classroom, Father Stack complimented a boy dressed as a priest, and told the children that priests have the special ability to bring Christ to people through the Eucharist, and they help people experience Christ's forgiveness through Confession.

Later, in the nearby kindergarten classroom, the pastor smiled as he posed for a photo with six boys dressed as knights, including a little St. George bearing a wooden shield emblazoned with the image of a dragon. Father Stack also posed with a young girl dressed as Mother Teresa, in her well-known white habit with blue trim. Father Stack noted how Mother Teresa taught that "Jesus is all, Jesus is everything. You've got to see Jesus in the poor."
Last fall, a large group of St. Jerome School families and parishioners met for a consultation, to address the school's operating deficit and declining enrollment, and to discuss how they could work together to sustain Catholic education there. The Archdiocese of Washington's Policies for Catholic Schools adopted in 2009 require schools with significant enrollment and financial challenges to hold consultations. St. Jerome ended the 2008-09 school year with a $117,469 deficit, and its enrollment last year had declined to 297 students from a high of 530 students in 2001-02.

"For me, it was an opportunity to be transparent, to tell people the truth," said Father Stack. "...We were afraid at first. It's a good case (that demonstrates) where the truth sets you free. You had to have faith."

The principal noted that the consultation offered parents the chance to look at the challenges and the opportunities faced by the school. Father Stack and Donoghue had themselves earlier undertaken that kind of effort through a pastor and principal leadership institute offered by the Mid-Atlantic Catholic Schools Consortium, as they worked together on a vision for their school, and they talked with other pastors and principals facing similar challenges.

"Consultation is an excellent opportunity for your school and your parish community to come together and really talk about what the purpose of the school is," Donoghue said. "...It ended up being the thing that spurred us on to this great new program we have to offer."

Father Stack noted, "We listened to people." The principal added, "They were looking for an authentically Catholic school, and they wanted a rigorous curriculum."

School families and members of the parish raised $190,000, exceeding their fundraising goals. A committee of seven volunteers worked for four months to draft the new classical curriculum, with their work resulting in a 120-page guide.

Rebecca Teti, a parent of four St. Jerome's students, was a member of the curriculum advisory committee. "I'm proud of it," she said. "It responds better to the way kids learn." Instead of a traditional textbook approach, "There's an intellectual adventure happening here," she said.

First graders study ancient Greece, second graders look at ancient Rome, third graders examine the Middle Ages, and fourth graders delve into the modern era, from the 1600s through the age of exploration to today. Fifth graders study American civilization, sixth graders return to the classical civilizations, seventh graders revisit medieval times, and eighth graders come back to the American experience.

As they study those eras, students learn about what role religion played in people's lives then, and they read great works of literature from those times. For example, seventh graders studying the Middle Ages are reading about the life of St. Benedict and learning about the rise of monastic communities and their work in preserving Catholic teaching and western culture.

Teti said that the curriculum is structured around historical periods, with Catholic teaching and culture tied into those eras, to underscore that "Jesus Christ is the Lord of history, and God is the author of truth, beauty and goodness. We wanted kids to see their unity, their connectedness to all people, and the goodness our (Catholic) culture has brought to history."

True to the spirit of their patron saint, St. Jerome, seventh graders are reading the Gospel of John, and eighth graders are reading St. Paul's letters. Fifth through eighth graders are learning Latin, and that program will expand to the lower grades.

The new curriculum also includes classroom discussions on classical works like the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," Plato's "Republic," and Thomas Paine's "Common Sense."

Teti said that this year, her eighth grade son comes home from school, "and actually talks about what he's learning... He used to hate math, now he loves it."

Speaking about the new curriculum and new approach to learning, Father Stack said, "It's kind of a whole new school." Enrollment has stabilized and exceeded goals, with 270 students now attending St. Jerome School.

Deacon Bert L'Homme, the new superintendent of Catholic schools for the Archdiocese of Washington, sent his children to St. Jerome School years ago, and recently returned to visit the school. He praised the new curriculum's focus on strengthening the school's Catholic identity and fostering high academic achievement. "They're lighting a fire, both in terms of academics, and in their spiritual life."

The deacon, who found his religious calling at the parish, said, "Catholic education in Hyattsville has a rich history and a promising future."

Just as St. Jerome's work in translating the Bible has made God's word accessible to people, the teachers and staff of St. Jerome School hope that the school's classical approach to learning will also help students encounter Christ in their everyday lives and share his love with others, which is the work of the New Evangelization that Cardinal-designate Donald Wuerl wrote about in his recent pastoral letter.

"What we are aiming to do is to educate our children, so they can live lives of service to God and others," said Donoghue. Later, she said, "My greatest joy is every day when the bell rings, it's another opportunity to tell the story of Jesus."