Earlier this year, when St. Francis International School in Silver Spring won a national award for leadership in promoting diversity in Catholic education, St. Francis’s principal posed with the award with the people who really made it possible – a representative group of students with family roots in countries around the world.
Toby Harkleroad, the school’s principal since it was founded in 2010, said in a recent interview that the 2015 Catherine T. McNamee, CSJ Award from the National Catholic Educational Association presented to St. Francis International School at the NCEA convention this spring is “a recognition that we excel just be being who we are, and that we’re something special by being who we are.”
The citation for that award notes that it is presented “to an individual or institution that offers exceptional leadership in promoting a vision of Catholic education that welcomes and serves cultural and economic diversity or that serves students with diverse needs.”
The 450 students attending prekindergarten through eighth grade at St. Francis International School make it true to its name. “We have parents or children born in 53 different countries,” Harkelroad said, adding that the school emphasizes that all children are welcome.
St. Francis serves students who would qualify for gifted and talented programs, and it also provides educational plans for boys and girls with special learning needs. In addition to opening its doors to many immigrant families and helping their children learn English, the school also tries to be accessible to families facing economic challenges, the principal said.
“If you want a Catholic education, no matter what challenges your family might face, we try to make that possible for you,” Harkleroad said.
Harkleroad said the school is a Franciscan learning community that embodies the spirit of its patron saint, St. Francis of Assisi.
“Francis saw the beauty and dignity in everything and everyone. We really try to reflect that belief system, and see the beauty and dignity of everyone in the school, from students to faculty to parents,” he said. “Everyone has worth and value, and everyone has something to contribute, and so our great task is to put all those pieces together into a beautiful mosaic that works.”
Through its educational programs and school activities, St. Francis encourages children to share and learn from each other’s cultures, so they can succeed in an world that is increasingly interconnected. Like Catholic schools in the early 20th century, St. Francis International School celebrates the cultural backgrounds of its students, and “helps kids become the best Americans they can be,” Harkleroad said. “…The greatest gift we can give them is the sense that each and every one of them is unique, and each one has an important path ahead of them, that they all have something good to contribute to the world.”
He noted how at a recent international night at the school, families wore ethnic dress and brought food from their countries, and seventh grade girls performed a dance together. “Girls wearing Salvadoran dresses were doing an Indian Bollywood dance next to girls with African headdresses,” the principal said. “…When they look at each other, they really see brothers and sisters… They see each other as family.”
This week, students at St. Francis International School will stage “The Sound of Music,” and the von Trapp children portrayed by the students there will come from many different countries, but form one family.
Smejkal Garcon, an eighth grader there whose parents were born in Haiti, will portray Captain von Trapp. Speaking of the lessons for life learned at his school, he said, “It’s a tight-knit community. In good and bad times, we learn from all of them… I love how our school is close together, even though we’re all from different parts of the world.”
Belane Ayelework, another eighth grader, has family roots in Ethiopia. She will play Marta von Trapp. Of her experience at St. Francis International School, she said, “It’s interesting to learn from people from other countries. You gain insights that textbooks don’t have.”
St. Francis eighth grader Amy Rivera, whose father was born in El Salvador, will portray Brigitta von Trapp. She too expressed appreciation for her educational experience at St. Francis International School. “I feel like interacting with different races and cultures at an early age is important,” she said. “You get a sense of how it is to be with people who are different from you. Later in life, when you meet people, you will judge them by their character, not their culture. You judge them by who the person is, and you’re more open to other people.”