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Editor's notebook: A Catholic school worth celebrating, and saving

Students enjoy an ice cream social at St. Bartholomew School in Bethesda, Maryland, on Jan. 16. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

Students, teachers and parents at St. Bartholomew School in Bethesda, Maryland, had an ice cream party in winter on Jan. 16, to put a cherry on top of a special week. 

Two days earlier, they had learned their beloved school will remain open for the next school year, after the community raised more than $870,000, exceeding the goal of raising $750,000 set after a consultation meeting in the fall. A steering committee of parents, faculty members and parishioners devised a plan to help St. Bartholomew School work toward meeting its goals to address recent operating deficits. Families there already registered nearly 90 percent of students for the next school year. Another key benchmark remains, as the school which now has 137 students hopes to increase enrollment by 40 children for 2020-21.

Amanda McMurtrie Herndon, St. Bartholomew’s resource teacher who started its inclusion program, called it “the little school that could.”

With Catholic Schools Week planned for later in January, she and other teachers, students and parents interviewed at the ice cream social offered insights on why St. Bartholomew School, and Catholic schools in general, are worth celebrating and saving. Their comments also reflect why it’s important to support efforts like the Archdiocese of Washington’s Annual Appeal, which provides significant tuition assistance to help families send their children to Catholic schools, and why it’s essential to advocate for government programs like the D.C. Opportunity Scholarships and Maryland’s BOOST scholarships that help families choose the best education for their children.

Offering words of welcome to the students, teachers and parents at the gathering, Father Mark Knestout, St. Bartholomew’s pastor, said, “It’s simply a party to say thanks to God,” adding that it was also a time to offer thanks for the prayers and hard work of those who had rallied for the school.

“We give thank for the wonderful people who know us and love us, and most especially, for the boys and girls of St. Bart’s,” the priest said, and he closed his remarks by praying that God will “give us strength to do your work in this world.”

In an interview, Kerry Parker, the St. Bartholomew third grade teacher who in 2019 won a Golden Apple Award as one of the archdiocese’s outstanding teachers, said teachers there cried tears of joy and relief when they heard the “heaven-sent” news that St. Bart’s would remain open for the upcoming school year.

Praising how parents mobilized after a late October meeting and worked together on committees to save the school, she said, “I think the idea we were going to be taken away from their families, they really dug down deep and they found a way.”

Parker said St. Bartholomew School gives students an academic and faith foundation that has a lasting impact on their lives.

“We are innovative. We are inclusive. We are this hidden gem here,” she said. “Every single thing is individualized,” she said of the school, which has an 8:1 student-to-teacher ratio. Parker noted that “all my third graders had different math homework last night, based on what they needed. We are able to meet them where they are and then help them to reach all of their potential.”

Discussing St. Bart’s Catholic identity, she said, “We are all about Jesus’s mission. We are boys and girls for others.” Parker pointed out how students visit the senior citizens at Bartholomew House, make sandwiches and collect socks for the homeless, and had a bake sale to support another Catholic school that was having financial difficulties last year.

“It’s ingrained in everything we teach – how can we live like Jesus, how can we be a living example of Jesus for others,” she said.

Also attending the party was another Golden Apple Award-winning teacher from St. Bartholomew School, Steve Bartl, who was a math teacher there for 35 years before retiring two years ago, but he still volunteers at the school once a week.

Asked to explain how the St. Bart’s community rallied on behalf of the school, he said, “It’s a combination of students, faculty, parents and the community that have always worked together, promoted Christian values and have put their heart and soul into the school.”

Noting that “the results speak for themselves,” Bartl pointed out how the school consistently has graduated students at a high academic level who have performed well in high school and gone on to success in college and professional life, with some coming back to teach at the school.

Third grade teacher Kerry Parker assists St. Bartholomew students at the ice cream social. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

St. Bartholomew students interviewed at the ice cream social reflected on what makes their school special.

Eighth grader Bella Aguilar noted that “the teachers and kids are friends.”

She hopes to be an author and editor someday, and added that her English classes there have “helped me improve my grammar and writing skills.”

The St. Bartholomew parishioner said she likes how her school “integrated our faith in our learning, so we could learn about both Jesus and our academics at the same time.”

Like many others enjoying ice cream that afternoon in the church hall, St. Bartholomew eighth grader Derek Karns said he was “jubilant” at the news about his school continuing next year.

“I came here brand new, I knew nobody in the sixth grade,” he said. “From the first week, I felt like I was part of the school community, part of the family.”

After attending public school for his earlier education, Karns said that he was so inspired by his experience as a new St. Bartholomew student that he was baptized as a Catholic at the parish during that sixth grade school year.

“I really wanted to become part of the Catholic community,” he said. “…Catholicism has become a part of my life.”

Karns, who since then has volunteered visiting the elderly at Bartholomew House and has joined other St. Bart’s students in the school’s outreach to the poor, said, “Being a Catholic is all about serving others, being a friend to others.”

Seventh grader Reed Phillips said he appreciated how teachers there “incorporate lots of different ways to learn,” including hands-on and electronic learning. Phillips, who is Christian, said another factor that makes St. Bartholomew School special is that “it’s such an inclusive community. If you take a look around, you see all races and backgrounds. Anyone who joins, we welcome them with open arms.”

Along with his academic foundation there, he said he has learned the importance of accepting others. “All these life skills will help me in the future,” Phillips said.

Sixth grader Sophia Smith has literally grown up at St. Bart’s. She was baptized at St. Bartholomew Church and has attended the school there since pre-kindergarten. “I was so scared,” she said, about the initial news about the school’s uncertain future, but then like so many there, she was relieved that it will remain open for the next school year.

“I know it’s the only school I went to. It’s still my favorite,” she said. “I’m glad I’ll be able to keep going here.”

Smith added that “St. Bartholomew’s has definitely shaped me as a person… I like being close to God and knowing He’s always there for me.”

Parents attending the party likewise celebrated the good news about St. Bartholomew School.

“This was an amazing team effort. Talk about taking a village. Everybody stepped up. Everyone,” said Marilyn Federowicz, a parent and parishioner who served on the steering committee.

She praised the efforts of current and former school families, teachers, alumni and parishioners, noting, “This is an amazing community. This is a beautiful place, inside and out, with tremendous hearts here. That’s what saved the day, that’s what brought it home. At the end of the day, it was everybody coming together.”

Federowicz’s three daughters have attended St. Bartholomew School – Ashley is an eighth grader, Caitlin is a sixth grader, and Jackie graduated from there in 2019 and is now a ninth grader at nearby Holton-Arms School in Bethesda.

“We came when our girls were in kindergarten and pre-K. We know the experience. We know what it means to be a St. Bartholomew student and to be a part of the St. Bartholomew community,” she said. “…When we let them out of the car at carpool, we know they are safe, nurtured, loved and well cared for in every way.”

And Federowicz, who like others noted the individualized attention that her daughters have received there, said she sees the impact that their Catholic education has had on them. “They are so kind and caring and grounded,” she said, adding, “We are blessed to be here.”

When parent Chris Cahill attended the meeting last fall when it was announced that St. Bartholomew School faced an uncertain future, he said, “I stayed up all night and put together a rough business plan.”

Later that week his plan was presented, and Cahill became the head of a new steering committee formed to reach the identified benchmarks in fundraising and enrollment for the school.

For Cahill, the effort was a personal one. His daughter Logan, a first grader at St. Bartholomew School, has Down syndrome.

“She’s the reason they started the inclusion program (there),” he said. Cahill noted that he had been to more than a dozen institutions trying to find the right place to educate his daughter, who had attended three previous schools.

The father noted that at St. Bartholomew School, Logan “is doing great. She’s a real rock star. They’ve got her reading sentences.”

The successful community effort at rallying on behalf of the school “is a miracle, to a great extent,” Cahill said. He noted how parents analyzed the school as an institution with top-notch facilities where recent graduates had some of the top test scores in the area. When they realized the value of the education that students were getting there, “it was an easy sell,” he said.

While the school seeks to meet its enrollment goals, Cahill said that a strategic plan for its future still underscored its small size which enables it to offer individualized education for its students, something he has experienced with his daughter Logan.

“We want to be that custom education that puts out a max product,” said Cahill, who also plans to send his young son Marshall there next year.

The process that the St. Bartholomew community engaged in to sustain their Catholic school, he said, helped them realize it’s “a great hidden gem, that can’t hide anymore.”