Tobias Harkleroad, the principal of St. Camillus School in Silver Spring, works with sixth graders Camilo Melnyk and Nandi Motshidi.
Tobias Harkleroad, the principal of St. Camillus School in Silver Spring, works with sixth graders Camilo Melnyk and Nandi Motshidi.
Seated around a table, five seventh graders from St. Camillus School in Silver Spring reflected both the legacy of their current school, and the promise of their new school, St. Francis International School.

Around that table sat David Echeverria, a St. Camillus student since the third grade whose mom is from Colombia and whose dad is from El Salvador. At St. Camillus, he said, "They teach us new things. God teaches me never to give up, to keep on going in my studies, and to have good grades."

Next to him sat Swetha Thomas, whose parents are from India. A St. Camillus student since kindergarten, she said, "We have learned that God is always there for us, and no matter what race we are, we can always stay friends and stick together."

For the upcoming 2010-11 school year, St. Camillus School and the nearby St. Mark the Evangelist School in Hyattsville are joining together to form the innovative new St. Francis International School. The new school, which will be initially located on the St. Camillus campus, will offer a Catholic, standards-based education with a global perspective to reflect both the diverse student population and the need for today's students to have new skills to become leaders in a diverse world.

Seventh grader Krystele Antoine, whose parents are from Haiti, has attended St. Camillus School since pre-kindergarten. At first, she felt mad about the change in schools. "Now I think it's a good change for everyone," she said.

Reflecting on her years at St. Camillus, Antoine said, "We learned that we shouldn't be afraid to express our faith in God. We should be able to talk to God whenever we need to talk to him or say 'hi' to him."

Her classmate Ray Butler, who is African-American, has also been a St. Camillus student since pre-kindergarten. Going to a new school, he said, will be like being adopted into a new family. "You can be like a new family," he said. "You miss your original family."

His St. Camillus School family included "great teachers... They help a lot," he said. Butler said that he learned "to be like Christ, and make good friends with everybody."

A framed print near the St. Camillus School entranceway depicts Christ the Teacher, done by Brother Mickey O'Neill McGrath, an artist and member of the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales. Each day, students there recite a prayer written years ago by a St. Camillus student, that reads in part, "We thank you, Jesus, for being our role model. Please bless our school and help us to stay safely in your light."

Near the artwork are posted the words, "Let it be known to all who enter here, that Jesus Christ is the reason for this school, the unseen but ever-present teacher in all its classes, the model for its faculty and the inspiration for its students."
Seventh grader Abiodun Olojo, whose parents are from Nigeria, has also attended St. Camillus School since pre-kindergarten. "We all stick together. We don't back down. We're like a family," he said.

Speaking of his faith, he added, "We learned that God is in us. He made us to be in the same image and likeness... (we are) sent out to help the world as it is, and to leave a mark to make it better."

Olojo said he was confident that the St. Camillus students would be able to bring that spirit of faith, family and unity to St. Francis International School.

"We're adding new older brothers and younger sisters to our family, from cultures all over the world," he said.

About 81 percent of St. Camillus students have at least one parent born in another country, and the school has parents and students born in nearly 50 countries.

Olojo's favorite memory of St. Camillus School is also his first memory of that school, when his mother was crying as she took him there for his first day, and "all the kids came to me with welcoming arms."

The 257 students at St. Camillus School learn to share their faith, every day. The sixth, seventh and eighth graders serve as "buddies" with the pre-kindergarten students and go to Mass with them. "It's like we're their big brothers and sisters," said Antoine. "We're a role model to them."

St. Camillus students collect food for a local pantry. "It's important," said Butler. "If you were in that position, you'd want someone to help you out."

Olojo agreed, saying, "St. Camillus is not just a family, the whole community is a family, and you want to help out your brothers and sisters."

Later, Franciscan Father Mike Johnson, the pastor of St. Camillus, walked with a visitor through the school. "The idea of St. Francis was a dream we came up together, the two pastors and two principals. We're very excited about blending the Franciscan charism and the spirit of both schools."

The Franciscan charism includes building bridges and working for peace and justice in the spirit of St. Francis of Assisi, he said. "A big piece of the Franciscan charism is love of creation," he said, noting the new school will include a greenhouse.

The priest noted how parishioners there come from 100 different countries. Each morning, the schoolchildren there join hands in prayer, as one family.

Henry Herrera, a music teacher at St. Camillus for the past 10 years, codirected the Gospel Choir at the 2008 Papal Mass at Nationals Park, and later he reflected on that experience with his students. "Just being there, there was a sense of oneness, and one faith. God was there. The feeling of the Spirit was so strong," he said.

In addition to teaching his students to respect themselves and other people, Herrera said he and other teachers encourage them "to achieve the highest they can achieve. Nothing is impossible."

Jan Whitley, a kindergarten teacher there for the past six years, gave up her law practice to teach. "Every day, the smiles on their faces" help convince her she made the right career choice, she said. Her three children graduated from St. Camillus School, and she converted to the Catholic faith during the Easter Vigil at St. Camillus Church five years ago. Now she said one of the high points of her week is serving as a Eucharistic minister at the school Masses.

Ann Rakotomalala, a second grade teacher at St. Camillus who has worked there for the past 24 years, said, "I feel very honored to have served the families here at St. Camillus." Preparing children to receive their First Communion "is just awesome," she said.

Chris Lesesne, a middle school teacher at St. Camillus, graduated from there in 1989. "It's been a place of welcoming," he said, noting that students transferring from another school or coming from another country are made to feel at home.

"I love every day I walk in the door," he said. "I have the opportunity to give these children the same opportunity my mother gave me, to receive a good Catholic education and to be a positive role model."

Debby Giancoli has taught at St. Camillus since 1987. The school began in 1954. A first grade teacher, she remembers Lesesne when he "was a little kid in daycare. One of the kindergarten parents, I had (as a student). It's a circle of life," she said.

She has a room at home filled with children's notes and artwork from over the years.

In an earlier interview with Catholic Standard reporter Laura Wright, Tobias Harkleroad - St. Camillus' principal, noted, "It's sad to see the name St. Camillus disappear as its own individual school, but it's not disappearing with doors that are going to close forever."

He will serve as co-head of the new St. Francis International School, along with St. Mark's current principal, Matt Russell. The schools held a science fair together this past year, and St. Camillus students attended the mission festival at St. Mark School.

"I am excited about the amount of opportunity that is ahead of us," Harkleroad said. "...One of the things our schools focused on for awhile were struggles. For the last 10 years, we have struggled with things like finances and enrollment. It distracted us from our core mission. Now, many of the distractions are taken care of, and the focus can be on education, faith formation, and the building of community."

To pay tribute to their school's legacy, members of the St. Camillus buried a time capsule, with mementos like a school yearbook, uniforms, photos and assignments.

The principal said one thing they will carry forward with them into their new school is the understanding that comes from the students from almost 50 countries holding hands each day and praying the Our Father together. "The underlying thing that is most important at St. Camillus School, is we are brothers and sisters," he said.