Matt Russell, one of the co-heads of St. Francis International School in Silver Spring, greets a student and her mother on the of classes Aug. 31, at the newly established school. St. Francis International School opened its doors Tuesday for the first time. Nearly 500 students, from about two years old through the eighth-grade, are the first to attend classes at the former St. Camillus School.
Matt Russell, one of the co-heads of St. Francis International School in Silver Spring, greets a student and her mother on the of classes Aug. 31, at the newly established school. St. Francis International School opened its doors Tuesday for the first time. Nearly 500 students, from about two years old through the eighth-grade, are the first to attend classes at the former St. Camillus School.
Matt Russell, one of the co-heads of the new St. Francis International School in Silver Spring, stood at the top of the steps on the first day of classes Aug. 31, at the newly established school. He was presiding over a happy chaos as he greeted students, their parents and faculty.

"We are so very excited, and we so very thrilled," Russell said in between welcoming students to the school. "There is so much energy and excitement around this new school. We are ready to go."

St. Francis International School opened its doors Tuesday for the first time. About 500 students, from about two years old through the eighth-grade, are the first to attend classes at the former St. Camillus School building.

The school was created earlier this year when officials at St. Camillus School in Silver Spring and St. Mark the Evangelist School in Hyattsville joined together to form the new school. St. Mark School officials were looking at ways to overcome declining enrollment and an operating deficit, and St. Camillus School was looking for ways to keep itself sustainable and affordable.

Conceived by the schools' pastors and principals, St. Francis International School offers 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.

Russell, the former principal of St. Mark School, serves as co-head of the school with Tobias Harkleroad, former principal of St. Camillus School.

Russell said that faculty, administrators and volunteers worked hard to create "a vibrant place of learning, a vibrant place of love and caring, where students can grow as God intends them to grow."

The former St. Camillus School got a facelift over the summer and sparkled with new paint, new carpeting and other renovations. In preparing the new school, many cosmetic improvements have been made. More than half of the classrooms have been refurbished, new flooring, carpets and ceilings have been installed, major landscaping has been completed and school offices have been remodeled.

"We are very excited," said Franciscan Father Michael Johnson, pastor of St. Camillus Parish. "After working all summer, I am relieved to see the first day of school. A lot of good learning will be taking place here this year."

As students and their parents gathered in the school's multi-purpose room, Harkleroad said that "the very first thing we will do today is gather and pray as a family. Our Catholic faith is the heart of all we will ever do here."
Nandi Maruping, a seventh grader at the school, said she wanted to attend the international school because "I want to learn Spanish and French. I want to get good grades and go to a good high school."

Nandi's mother, Kagiso, a native of Botswana, said that while she was happy with "the multi-cultural education offered here," the school's Catholic identity is more significant to her.

"I know my daughter will get a wonderful Catholic education here," Kagiso said. "The fact that this is a Catholic school and the kids will pray every morning is very important to me."

Students at St. Francis International School will attend daily religious classes and regularly scheduled Masses. They will also participate in daily prayer.

Prayer was indeed the first order of business in the new school.

"We come together in the unity of faith," Harkleroad said in his opening prayer. He urged the students to "turn to our patron saint and ask his intercession ... to show us how to make the will of God real in the world around us."

Telling students and teachers that "we place our new community entirely in His (God's) hands," Harkleroad prayed that education at St. Francis International School would "lead us to a knowledge of the world and of God."

Father John Dillon, pastor of St. Mark Parish, led students in praying for their teachers. He offered the prayer, he said, "as we start our journey as a family in a new school."

After the morning assembly in the multipurpose room, Russell rang an old-fashioned, hand-held school bell to signal the start of classes. Students, parents and faculty greeted the start of a new school year in a new school with a hearty round of applause.

As students and their teachers made their way to the new classrooms, most smiled and chatted with each other.

Lingering by one of the first-grade classes, Maria Quispe watched as her son Matthew took his seat in his first-grade class on his first day of school. She had a little difficulty holding back the tears watching her oldest child head off to school.

"Matthew is nervous because he's new," Quispe explained. "And I'm nervous, too, because this is my first child in first grade."

As teachers and students prepared for the first day of classes, Henry Wroblewski, St. Francis International School's sixth- through eighth-grade science teacher, said, "The mix of teachers and the new blood here make this an exciting time. I know that good things, fantastic things, will happen here."

Pamela Romero, a second-grade student at the school, said she was excited to see the beginning of the school year and a return to being with her friends. For her mother, Lilian Romero, the new school "is something I like very much."

"I know this will broaden the education of my daughter," Romero said as she ushered her daughter into the school for the first day of classes.

Ana Velasquez, the school's Spanish teacher, said St. Francis International School would help students meet the challenges they will face as adults in the 21st century. Velasquez, who previously taught at St. Camillus School for the past four years, also noted that "it is good to see so many new faces."

"As we are globalizing in every aspect of the world, education has to globalize as well, and that is what we are doing here," she said.

Charmain Palmer, who has students in the eighth and fifth grades, said she sends her children to the school "because I look for success."

"This new school is a change for the better," she said, "and will help my kids succeed."