With the organ playing Elgar's "Pomp and Circumstance" and their proud parents watching and taking photos, members St. Francis International School's Class of 2011 processed into their commencement exercises June 2, becoming the first graduates of the recently established Silver Spring school.

"This is the moment which we looked up to since kindergarten, the moment we thought it would take almost an eternity," said Joshua Batugo, a member of the pioneer graduating class and student council president. "This is our moment."

Thirty-nine students received diplomas during the ceremony at St. Camillus Church.

St. Francis International School opened its doors for the first time last August after officials at St. Camillus School in Silver Spring and St. Mark the Evangelist School in Hyattsville joined together to form the new school. Several hundred students, from about two years old through the eighth-grade, were the first to attend classes at the former St. Camillus School.

"The teachers are so proud of the work they did here this year and for the many years before," said Tobias Harkleroad, principal of the school. "Over this past year we have become a family."

At a Mass prior to the graduation ceremony, Father John Dillon, pastor of St. Mark Parish, told the students, "I cannot tell you how proud Father Mike (Johnson, the Franciscan priest who serves as pastor of St. Camillus) and I are of you."

"I offer you one piece of advice," Father Dillon told the graduates, "that is make sure you cultivate a friendship with Jesus. Always stay close to Jesus."

In reminding the students of the Gospel mandate to "go and make disciples of all nations," the priest told them to remember the words of their school's patron, St. Francis of Assisi: "Preach the Gospel on every occasion, and when necessary, use words."

The school was created in January 2010, as St. Mark School officials were looking at ways to overcome declining enrollment and an operating deficit, and St. Camillus School officials were looking for ways to keep the school sustainable and affordable.

The former St. Camillus School got a facelift prior to opening last summer as St. Francis International School. The building was newly painted and carpeted. More than half of the classrooms were refurbished, new flooring and ceilings were installed, major landscaping was completed and school offices were remodeled.

Conceived by the schools' pastors and principals, St. Francis International School was designed to offer a Catholic, standards-based education with a global perspective to reflect the diverse student population and the need for students to have new skills to become leaders in a diverse world.

Graduate David Echeverría said that during his year at St. Francis International School, he decided "I would like to go to a university and do the things my parents were unable to do."
Echeverría said he plans on being an immigration lawyer "to help immigrants, travel the world and be an example to my younger sister." He added that because he had daily Spanish-language classes, he can "understand, read, write and speak Spanish very well."

St. Mark and St. Camillus parishes both have large immigrant communities, representing more than 100 countries and more than a dozen languages.

"What makes our school different is the diversity, which enriches the students," said Janet Glotnis, Spanish teacher at the school. She added that integrating the Spanish-language into the curriculum "is important in this day when we live in a globalized environment."

Glotnis and her fellow teachers participated in the commencement exercises, leading the graduates in their procession into the church for the ceremony.

"Our students are learning art, social sciences and other subjects while learning the language of their parents or conserving the language of the place where they were born," Glotnis said. She added that students are "fortunate to have the best of both worlds, their Latino heritage and the very rich culture of the United States."

St. Francis International School offers pre-kindergarten through eighth-grade classes, extended class days, a summer program, varied after-school activities, small group instruction and services such as counseling and tutoring. Students attend daily religion classes and regularly scheduled Masses. They will also participate in daily prayer.

Harkleroad told the graduates that "the one thing I want you to remember from your time at St. Francis International School is to be your best and be who God intended you to be."

"Take those things that we have taught you; take those things your parents have taught you, and live them each day," the principal said. "Be your best."

Graduate Erica Chukwu, in recalling her first day at the school, said, "I can admit I was a bit nervous. I had new teachers and I knew the classes would be insanely challenging."

She said that during the school year, "there were tests, homework, projects and preparation for the high school of our choices," but "I have grown in my faith and into a more caring, responsible student because of my teachers."

About 60 percent of St. Francis International School's graduates are going on to Catholic high schools, including Our Lady of Good Counsel High School, Don Bosco Cristo Rey High School, DeMatha Catholic High School, St. John's College High School, Archbishop Carroll High School, St. Vincent Pallotti High School, the Academy of the Holy Cross and Elizabeth Seton High School.