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Thursday, March 13, 2008

"Nun can stop these teachers"

"Nun can stop these teachers"

Parents praise St. Francis school education

By Elizabeth Hardin-Burrola
Staff writer Gallup Independent

GALLUP — For parents like Cindy Vargas, St. Francis of Assisi School is “a little miracle” on West Wilson Avenue.

And for Vargas, much of what makes St. Francis such a good school for Dylan, her son in first grade, are the Catholic sisters who work there as teachers and teacher’s aides.

Vargas was one of three parents who talked with the Independent recently about their appreciation for the sisters and the school. She was joined by Marisa Hutchinson, the mother of sixth-grader Danielle and first-grader Gabriel, and by Mellissa Aparicio, also the mother of a first-grade son named Gabriel.

In light of the much-publicized struggles and failings of the public school system, the three local moms wanted to spotlight some positive attention on what they believe are eight strengths of St. Francis — the four sisters of Our Lady of Guadalupe and St. Joseph from Mexico and the four Rosarian Dominican sisters from the Philippines.

In fact, St. Francis School is even unusual in the Diocese of Gallup because 80 percent of the school’s teachers and teacher’s aides are Catholic sisters. All the other schools in the diocese, like many Catholic schools across the country, have higher numbers of lay teachers because of declining numbers of women entering religious orders over the last several decades. According to Sister Rene Backe, diocesan superintendent of Catholic schools, only two sisters teach at St. Anthony in Zuni and St. Michael Elementary School in Arizona, four are at St. Bonaventure in Thoreau and at St. Michael High School in Arizona, and Sacred Heart in Farmington and St. Joseph in San Fidel only have one sister each. The St. Michael schools also have three religious brothers as teachers.

And unlike many contemporary Catholic sisters who dress similarly to women in the larger society, the sisters at St. Francis are unusual in that their distinctive habits reflect their more traditional and conservative religious orders.

That traditional background seems to reflect what Vargas, Hutchinson, and Aparicio were searching for when they went looking for a school to educate their children.

Vargas, a product of Gallup’s old Cathedral School, was taught by sisters and believes she received a high-quality education.

“I wanted my son to grow up that way,” she said. Vargas said she has been pleased with the academics at St. Francis, adding that her son began reading while enrolled in his pre-K4 class.

Hutchinson and Aparicio, who both moved to Gallup because of their husbands’ jobs, transferred their children to St. Francis after being dissatisfied with their first schools in Gallup. Both mothers said their children tested as gifted but weren’t being academically challenged in their former schools. In contrast, they said, the sisters at St. Francis are good at providing challenging assignments rather than just extra busy work. They have also been pleased with the small class size and the resulting individual attention for each pupil.

According to Mary Peretti, a secretary at the school, St. Francis currently has 100 children enrolled from pre-K3 to sixth grade, with the average class size of 12 pupils. Peretti is somewhat of an authority about St. Francis: she and her siblings attended there up through the eighth grade, she taught there for 18 years, all her children have attended St. Francis, and now her grandchildren are enrolled.

Although not Catholic, Hutchinson said she is also happy with the religious instruction in the school. Originally from Florida, Hutchinson said her church background is with the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Noting that “God has been taken out of everything” in American society, Hutchison said she is OK with her children learning Catholic beliefs and prayers. “It’s still Christianity,” she said.

Vargas and Aparico, who are both Catholic, said they were attracted to the school’s emphasis on faith-based education. “I’m learning things about the Bible that I didn’t even know by reviewing the lessons,” said Aparico.

The women believe that faith-based approach positively influences relationships between pupils and between parents. Through working on classroom projects and school fundraisers, Aparico said she has come to view the other mothers in the school as her sisters. Vargas credited the teachers as fostering that caring atmosphere among parents.

“They bring the quality of compassion and Catholicism,” agreed Principal Mary Ann Frank.

The eight sisters also bring an international flavor to the school. Having teachers from Mexico and the Philippines helps broaden the children’s cultural understanding, said Hutchinson, who added that her daughter has loved performing the traditional Mexican dances she has learned from her teachers.

“They’re in a multi-cultural school,” agreed Aparicio. She said she’s been pleased that her son has been exposed to both Spanish and the Filipino language of Tagalog while in school, and she doesn’t believe the teachers’ foreign accents have hindered Gabriel’s English reading and writing skills.

Other parents in Gallup may not share that same view. According to Frank, a first year principal at St. Francis, some parents have voiced concern about English being the sisters’ second language. Some parents may not consider the school as an educational option because of that factor, she said, and also because of its “across the tracks” location.

An additional challenge the school faces, Frank said, involves the immigration status of the four Filipino sisters. Although the sisters are working in the U.S. legally, she explained, a paperwork snafu from a few years ago is threatening their ability to stay in Gallup. Frank said she hopes someone will be able to help solve the problem before the end of the school year.

Frank expressed appreciation for the parents’ support, particularly the “dogged persistence every month” by those parents who organize fund-raiser after fund-raiser to help support St. Francis. The aging school, which has a lot of maintenance issues, is not funded by either the Diocese of Gallup or the St. Francis parish, she explained, but rather seems to survive on “lots of grace and support.”

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