St. Francis International School  third-grade teacher Lauren Ebley (center) prepares her classroom with the assistance of her mother, Karen, and her father, John Ebley.
St. Francis International School third-grade teacher Lauren Ebley (center) prepares her classroom with the assistance of her mother, Karen, and her father, John Ebley.
When the new St. Francis International School in Silver Spring opens at the beginning of this school year, about 500 students, from about two years old through the eighth-grade, will be the first to attend classes there. Those pioneer students will experience an innovative Catholic education for the 21st century.

"This beats our most conservative estimates" of the number of students attending the school, said Tobias Harkleroad, former principal of St. Camillus School and one of the co-heads of the new school.

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.

Matt Russell, the former principal of St. Mark School is the other co-head of the school. About 70 percent of St. Mark's students and 90 percent of St. Camillus students have enrolled in the new school. Students come from as far away as Laurel and Upper Marlboro.

"We are serving not just two parishes, but a region," Harkleroad said.

Since the creation of the school was announced at the beginning of this year, "it has been an exciting eight months as we've worked at breakneck speed," Harkleroad said.

The creation of the school, he said, "shares the resources of both schools and preserves both schools' legacies."

"This is not a merger where one school is swallowing another school," he said. "This is a new venture where we are building a new Catholic school together."

St. Francis International School will offer students twice-a-week physical education, daily Spanish classes, a 20,000-volume library, a full scale computer lab and several mini labs, and a computer in every classroom.

The school will also provide extended before- and after-school care.
In preparing the new school, many cosmetic improvements have been made to the former St. Camillus School building. 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.

"More than 90 percent of the labor has been volunteer labor from people in the parish," Harkleroad said. "They want a fresh school for these kids."

Franciscan Father Michael Johnson, pastor of St. Camillus Parish, noting the refurbishment of the school and the high number of students enrolled there, said that "people are seeing that we are investing in Catholic education, and they are putting their kids in this school."

"We have assembled a great team and great things are possible here," he said. "Last year we were dreaming about this, and this summer we are bringing it to birth."

He noted that future plans call for the construction of senior citizen housing on the St. Camillus Parish campus, quite near the school.

With senior citizens volunteering at the school, Father Johnson said, "this would allow older folks to feel vital and minister to the young kids, and the kids will have a connection with wisdom figures."

St. Francis International School also offers upgrades that benefit the students but that are not readily apparent at a casual glance.

Harkleroad said the organizational structure of the school has changed. He said teacher leaders have been named "to act as quasi-assistant principals" and "we have built up services for students with special educational needs."

"We offer one of the most robust and direct services around for students with learning challenges," he said.

Teachers at the school have participated in professional development that Harkleroad said "offers a new model of learning."

"We teach a curriculum that is connected grade-to-grade and across all courses," he said. "We have made a major commitment to step out of an old-fashioned compartmentalized learning model to an integrated model."

"People are excited about the possibilities the new model presents," Russell said in a recent interview with the Catholic Standard.

"It's modern education, what we're able to do creating St. Francis, take research, educational models, take the best practices of the past 10-15 years of what the 21st century school needs to be, what can we do to prepare children for life in the 21st century," Russell said.

The education offered at St. Francis International school comes with a strong emphasis on the school's Catholic identity.

"Our reason for existing is not simply to provide a great education, but to be a Catholic school offering the best faith formation you can give a child," Harkleroad said. "Education is important, but the Catholic faith is our heart and the heart of our community."

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

"This is a place where we will teach Christian service and allow our students to be free to talk about the faith," Harkleroad said.

In an earlier interview, Father Johnson said that St. Francis International School will reflect the spirit of St. Francis of Assisi, and students will learn to build bridges, work for peace and justice and protect God's creation, following the example of their patron saint.

Students at the new school have roots in many countries, but they share one faith, and they will be learning together, gaining a global perpective on their world.

"This is a very exciting time. The main reason we've done what we've done is to serve the students," Russell said in his interview. "We've taken a bold step forward into the future, a bold step to bring Catholic education into the 21st century."

"Everyone is just thrilled by the possibilities ahead of us," Harkleroad said. "We have a wide-open future, and I hope the kids are comfortable and feel like this is their second family. I hope they feel loved and supported."

(For information on the new St. Francis International School, call 301-434-2344 or check the website at www.saintfrancisinternational.org)