Fifth graders from St. Mark School in Hyattsville work together on a religion class exercise. In the upcoming school year, St. Mark School will combine with St. Camillus School in Silver Spring to form the new St. Francis International School.
Fifth graders from St. Mark School in Hyattsville work together on a religion class exercise. In the upcoming school year, St. Mark School will combine with St. Camillus School in Silver Spring to form the new St. Francis International School.
Building on a 52-year legacy of faith and academic excellence, St. Mark the Evangelist School in Hyattsville is joining with nearby St. Camillus School in Silver Spring to form the innovative new St. Francis International School for the upcoming 2010-11 school year. The new school, conceived by the schools' pastors and principals, 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.

"People are excited about the possibilities the new model presents," said Matt Russell, St. Mark's principal for the past two years who will become co-head of the new St. Francis International School, along with Tobias Harkleroad, current principal of St. Camillus School.

Russell noted, "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."

So far, about 480 students are enrolled for the new St. Francis International School, with some slots still available. The new school will initially be located on the St. Camillus campus, with summer programs starting at St. Mark in coming weeks. "We've gotten great response from both communities," Russell said, noting that about 75 percent of families from St. Mark and about 92 percent of families from St. Camillus have enrolled in the new school, along with an additional 110 new students from as far away as Germantown and Laurel.

The school administrator said that the international model "speaks to who we are as an international community." Students from the current St. Mark School have roots in more than 60 countries on five continents, and more than 40 native languages are spoken in that community.

"They've all come together as one family," the educator said.
In addition to drawing on team-based learning and teaching, the new school is "really embracing the model of the International Baccalaureate (program) as we set up... Down the road, we'll be looking at engaging in the program," Russell said. The strength of that model includes thematic learning, and a curriculum centered around big questions that engage students across the curriculum, he said.

The St. Francis summer program that runs on the former St. Mark School campus from June 23 to Aug. 3 will include a lot of hands-on learning that reinforces subjects like math and reading.

In an interview last week, Russell said that the new St. Francis International School will draw on the educational legacy of both St. Mark and St. Camillus schools. St. Mark School has been a leader in educating the children of its community for more than five decades, he said.

"We're evolving into something that is new and fresh for the new century. It's a natural growth of that legacy," which is rooted in Catholic values and academic excellence, Russell said. "What St. Mark's has always exemplified... is kids come out of here prepared academically and morally to be engaged citizens, and all of that will continue."

St. Mark School has educated generations of families in its community, with some current teachers teaching the grandchildren of former children. The new St. Francis International School "is going to allow us to continue to provide for the future for those families," he said. "That sense of family and excellence in academics are hallmarks of what we have here at St. Mark's."

Those benchmarks of the legacies of both schools are the starting point in developing the new school, Russell said.

This past fall, St. Mark School was one of 14 schools in the archdiocese that held consultations to discuss challenging enrollment and financial issues and to plan for the future. When the new St. Francis International School was announced in January, Patricia Weitzel-O'Neill, superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Washington, praised the new model, saying, "St. Francis International School will offer the families in this community exciting new opportunities for an excellent Catholic education into the future."

Praising St. Mark's Catholic identity, Russell noted, "The Catholicity of the school permeates everything. You see it in math classes, science classes, in the way children interact with each other."

Near the entrance of St. Mark School, a statue of St. Claudine Thevenet is displayed. The foundress of the Religious of Jesus and Mary, the religious order that staffed the school for most of its history, offers a saintly role model for "learning to bear wrongs patiently, and learning to forgive," said Father John Dillon, the pastor of St. Mark, who noted that the saint bore the sorrow of her brothers' execution during the French Revolution. As they lined up to be executed, her brothers shouted to her, "Forgive, as we also forgive," echoing the words of Jesus on the cross.

Students at the school experience forgiveness in a special way through receiving the Sacrament of Penance, the priest said. St. Claudine also offers students an example of "not giving up, and not being discouraged" by adversity, he said.

After the opening bell, St. Mark students begin their school day by praying the morning offering together, and they pray before lunch and say the act of contrition before going home. Special prayer intentions are offered each day, and a reflection on the life of the saint of that day is read. The whole school attends Mass together on First Fridays and holy days. Students live out their faith in a variety of ways, collecting money for the missions and food for the parish's pantry, and participating in walks for the homeless. On All Saints Day, the children at St. Mark School dress up as saints and line up in a parade.

That spirit of faith at St. Mark Parish and School has fostered vocations to the priesthood, including Father Avelino Gonzalez, a parochial vicar at St. Martin of Tours Parish in Gaithersburg who grew up there. Deacon Charles Gallagher, who will be ordained as one of eight new priests of the Archdiocese of Washington on June 19, is from St. Mark Parish, as is another current archdiocesan seminarian, Tim Daniel, who is studying at the North American College in Rome.

The academic excellence fostered by the religious and lay teachers over the years at St. Mark School will be a cornerstone of the new St. Francis International School, the pastor and principal said. Over the years, St. Mark students "found a place where they could thrive, and (Iearn how to) succeed in life. One thing they could count on was the support and love of their teachers," Father Dillon said.

Eighth graders at St. Mark have learned to express themselves and share their God-given talents by working together to stage spring musicals, like "Fiddler on the Roof" and "The Wizard of Oz."

Two long-time St. Mark's teachers praised the school's legacy of faith and learnining, and expressed hope that the new St. Francis International School would build on that.

"They (students) felt at home here," said Linda Wilkes, a language arts teacher at St. Mark who earlier taught social studies and religion. She is retiring after 26 years there. "It was a place where they were nurtured and grew physically, academically and spiritually."

Patricia Brady, a kindergarten teacher at St. Mark for 28 years, will kindergarten at the new St. Francis International School.

The teacher said that as St. Mark became more diverse over the years and was less of a neighborhood school, the school kepts its family spirit.

Brady, who in her youth attended the integrated St. Anthony School in Northeast Washington in the late 1950s and early 1960s, said the St. Mark's students she has taught learned the same lessons of acceptance and togetherness that she once learned.

"I love all kids," Brady said, adding that she hopes the new St. Francis International School will likewise grow into a school "that's united and faith-filled."

Both teachers praised the work of the priests who have served over the years at St. Mark Parish and School. Speaking of the late Msgr. Thomas Wells, a former pastor there who was murdered 10 years ago (see story on page 20), Wilkes said, "the faith meant so much to him. He exuded it, and he passed it on to the kids and parents and teachers."

The pastor and principal said that St. Mark students will offer a living legacy to their new school. "They're looking forward to being the best they can be," said Father Dillon.