SILVER SPRING, Md. — Despite the nation-wide challenge of Catholic schools with finances and enrollment, St. Francis International School is growing, reaching out to more students by becoming the official parish school for Our Lady of Vietnam Church. The administration of the year-old St. Francis International School was pleased to announce last month this third sponsor and to welcome many interested families to open houses.
Its open houses during the annual Catholic Schools Week, Jan. 31 to Feb. 5, brought out nearly 200 families. The Vietnam influence expands St. Francis’ diversity, which now teaches students from 50 countries that speak more than a dozen languages.
“Our open houses and re-registration were very positive and we look forward to our second year being stronger than our first,” said Tobias Harkleroad, principal of the school that opened last year as a new model of collaboration between schools. It partnered with St. Mark the Evangelist School in nearby Hyattsville, Md., to become an international school. Now, it adds Our Lady of Vietnam Church to the collaboration.
“We are very proud that St. Francis International School will serve as the parish school for Our Lady of Vietnam, in addition to St. Camillus and St. Mark the Evangelist,” said Harkleroad.
“The Vietnamese community worshipped at St. Camillus Church before its own beautiful pagoda-style church was built in 1990,” he added.
The sponsorship of Our Lady of Vietnam Parish was announced in an article in the Jan. 27 issue of The Catholic Standard, newspaper of the Washington Archdiocese. It reported that the elementary school features “an innovative global learning curriculum.”
Harkleroad said, “The decision of Our Lady of Vietnam parish to become a supporting parish of St. Francis is both a recognition of the reality that there are already children from their parish enrolled in the school and an embrace of the future of a new type of Catholic school. We intend for St. Francis to become a Catholic school that is in one sense self-governing and self-sufficient as a ministry independent of the sponsoring parishes but simultaneously providing the very important ministry of Catholic education to the families of the sponsoring parishes. We liken it to the model of high school education in the Archdiocese of Washington, where all but one of are operated independently from the archdiocese itself. As a result of that need for self-sufficiency as a ministry, they are able to be some of the finest providers of Catholic school ministry to high school kids in the entire United States.”
He continued: “Our Lady of Vietnam becoming a supporting parish also makes sense from the standpoint of our core mission to serve the Church beyond physical parish boundaries, beyond the languages of worship communities, and beyond the more traditional ways of organizing Church that are not necessarily in line with the ways people are seeking the service of education for their children.”
Diverse School Families
This year, the school serves 440 students, aged 2 through 14 years-of-age, many of whom come from immigrant families.
“Our school community is very diverse with 4 percent of our students and 68 percent of our parents born abroad,” Harkleroad said. “Our parents and students were born in over 50 countries, including the United States, El Salvador, Haiti, Ethiopia, Cameroon, Nigeria, Dominican Republic, Sierra Leone, India, Vietnam, Bangladesh, and the Philippines.”
In addition to English, the families speak Spanish, French, Amharic, Vietnamese, Bangla, and other languages in their homes. Every student at St. Francis studies both English and Spanish and the school offers ESL services.
“While more than half of our families live within 5 miles of the school, we have families that come to us from the District of Columbia and from Maryland counties beyond Montgomery and Prince George’s because our school virtually sits on the border between them,” said Harkleroad.
Roughly 75 percent of the school’s students are Catholic and more than half are members of St. Camillus and St. Mark parishes, according to Harkleroad.
“Students also come from 22 other parishes in the Archdiocese of Washington, including Our Lady of Vietnam, Nativity, Kidane Mehret, Our Lady of Sorrows, and Resurrection,” the principal said. “Some of our students come from other Christian traditions, including Ethiopian Orthodox, Lutheran, Baptist, Episcopal, and Methodist. We also have students from the Muslim and Buddhist faith traditions in our school.”
The school’s administration tries to help families so that their children to attend the school, whose website describes St. Francis as “A new Catholic school for the 21st century.”
“It costs nearly $3 million to provide a high quality Catholic education for the children we serve,” Harkleroad said. “Some families are able to pay the full tuition for their child, which is almost $7,000 per year. Nearly 30 percent of our children qualify as high poverty under federal guidelines.”
Generous Financial Aid
“We work very hard to help all families who desire to send their children to Catholic school be able to afford to be part of St. Francis International School. Most families in the school receive some type of financial assistance, including almost $300,000 from the Archdiocese of Washington.”
More than 85 percent of the school’s operating budget is covered by tuition and fees paid by parents. “We rely on fundraising, donations, foundations, and support from the archdiocese and our sponsoring parishes to provide financial aid to cover the rest,” said Harkleroad.
During Catholic Schools week this year, St. Francis International School held two open houses and offered tours.
Parents seeking information about the school are encouraged to call the school at 301-424-2344 or visit its website, according to Harkleroad. He added: “The best way to learn about our school is by checking out the videos on our YouTube channel.”
— Jocelyn Thomas is director of communications for Holy Name Province.