Officials at St. Camillus School in Silver Spring and St. Mark the Evangelist School in Hyattsville have created a new school that one educator called "a bold step to bring Catholic education into the 21st century."

Archbishop Donald Wuerl gave his approval to the new school this week.

This fall, St. Mark and St. Camillus will continue to educate their students at the new St. Francis International School, which will open in the former St. Camillus School building.

"St. Francis International School is a new school founded by the two schools together, and we are very excited by this because it will allow us to do things for the children that neither one of us could do on our own," said Tobias Harkleroad, principal of St. Camillus School.

Harkleroad and Charles Russell, principal of St. Mark School, will serve as co-heads of the new school when it opens.

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

He added that a St. Francis International School education "will be a tremendous benefit to the students." The school plans to offer a curriculum to equip students to operate in a diverse world.

Noting that both parishes have large immigrant communities representing more than 100 countries and more than a dozen languages, Father John Dillon, the pastor of St. Mark in Hyattsville, said the new school "will enable us to have a curriculum that is an international curriculum and to reach out to students who may not otherwise have the opportunity to have a Catholic school education."

The new school came about as St. Mark School officials were looking at ways to overcome declining enrollment and an operating deficit. Meanwhile, St. Camillus School, according to Franciscan Father Michael Johnson, pastor of St. Camillus Parish, was looking for ways "keep providing a quality Catholic education that is affordable and sustainable" into the future.
Enrollment at St. Camillus has been relatively steady, but the parish, in looking to the future, began thinking about new ways to provide Catholic education, Father Johnson said. "But, in this year when there has been a lot of disturbing news (about school finances), we decided it was a new time for Catholic education. St. Camillus and St. Mark got together to provide this unique possibility for our people."

Father Dillon said that "out of a sense of adversity - the financial challenges we were facing - came the opportunity to found a new school."

"Sometimes adversity presents opportunity, and Providence put things together really well," Father Dillon said. "We have the unparalleled opportunity to build this great 21st century school."

Harkleroad said that "we took something that could have been a terrible moment, a painful moment, and turned it into a moment of grace."

"There may have been a financial reason that started the conversation, but the real motivation for starting the school is the fact that this is the right thing to do, the way it should be, even if there were no financial problems," he said.

The two pastors and the two principals worked together to transform their schools into the new St. Francis International School.

Russell said "the partnership with the other principal and the pastors has been really wonderful." Harkleroad noted that principals and pastors from both schools and parishes "worked really hard together. We are like the two sides of the same coin."

"We did a lot of homework - we're not the first two schools to do this nationally - and we've looked at other schools to see what works and what doesn't work," Harkleroad said. "We asked ourselves, 'What do our kids need for the 21st century, and how do we give it to them?' "

St. Francis International School, which will offer pre-kindergarten through eighth grade classes, will feature extended class days, a summer program, varied after-school activities, small group instruction and services such as counseling and tutoring.

"The curriculum will follow the standards of the Archdiocese of Washington and will be enhanced by the adoption of a more integrated approach to delivery and methodology," said Patricia Weitzel-O'Neill, archdiocesan superintendent of schools.

Harkleroad said the school would offer "more hands-on learning," such as honing math skills by students working in the school store.

Because the new school will offer classes in several languages, Weitzel-O'Neill said, "St. Francis International School will reach out to the community fulfilling its mission to serve a diverse community."

"We will offer intensive instruction in the primary language, which is English, but there will be instruction in multiple languages," Russell said. To start, classes will be offered in English and Spanish. Future plans call for the school to add classes in French and other languages.

"The school will offer project-solving education that is relevant to the kids. This is a generation heavily into the mass media and electronics, and we need to engage them in a more hands-on way," Father Johnson said. "As an international school, our students will hopefully learn and grow as citizens of the world."

As they worked to create the new school, St. Mark and St. Camillus officials stressed that they wanted the new school to be authentically Catholic.

"This really builds on the great legacy of Cardinal (Patrick) O'Boyle who established both schools," Father Dillon said. "We will continue the mission of the Religious of Jesus and Mary (who originally staffed St. Marks's School) and the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur (who originally staffed St. Camillus School)."

"This is going to be an authentically Catholic school," Russell said. "Catholic religion is not just another class to take, but the string that pulls everything together and binds everything together."

Father Johnson said that the new school would "integrate faith formation into every part of the curriculum."

"It is part of the Franciscan tradition to see God in all creation," he said. "The school will offer (students) a sense of structure and a sense of belonging to God's family."

Weitzel-O'Neill said the school "addresses the true mission of Catholic schools."

St. Francis International School is scheduled to start offering summer classes this year in the St. Mark School building, and transfer to the St. Camillus building at the start of the school year. The two school buildings are less than three miles apart.

"We are renovating and improving the facilities and giving everything a general facelift," Father Johnson said.

The principals and pastors said that between 450 to 500 students from two years old through the eighth grade could be accommodated at the school. Each also said that families and students at the respective parishes and schools are looking forward to the opening of St. Francis International School.

"The people here are very grateful that there is the opportunity for the legacy to continue, and there is a sense of excitement," Father Dillon said.

Russell added that St. Mark students "are very excited about the new school."

"The students and families are pretty excited, I think," Russell said. "Change is always difficult, but as we move forward, they see the full range of possibilities before them."

Speaking for his parish and school, Father Johnson said, "the people are pleased and the kids are thrilled about this wonderful partnership."

"I commend the pastors and principals for their vision and collaboration with their communities," Weitzel-O'Neill said.

"We're really excited about this creative initiative on the part of both communities to come together and form a regional school in a new and exciting model," said Thomas Burnford, secretary for education for the Archdiocese of Washington.