Founded by the Grey Nuns in 1954, St. Mary’s School in Kodiak continues to grow in student population, academic development and its focus on Catholic social teachings, co-principal Brian Cleary told the Catholic Anchor.
Despite challenges earlier this decade in keeping the school financially sound Cleary said he is excited about how the school has progressed.
“It’s really an institution here in Kodiak,” he said. “There are a lot of supporters of this school that aren’t Catholic, that don’t have children that go here. They just care about it.”
He added: “People are always stopping in and asking ‘What can I do to help’?”
Besides balancing a budget, Cleary says St. Mary’s has a unique mission: While the staff work to nurture the development of the faith and intellect of their students, they also are acutely aware that very few of their 80 students are actually Catholic.
“We are always balancing between maintaining our Catholic identity and appealing to the greater community,” Cleary explained. “We demonstrate to the larger community, the children and their parents the facets of our faith.”
The school focuses on core content academics in multi-grade classrooms, as well as music, art and Spanish classes. Students attend daily faith formation, weekly Mass and participate in a monthly focus and application on one of the Catholic principals of justice. This year the school is also highlighting the gifts of the Holy Spirit.
Extracurricular activities include basketball, volleyball, cross country running, dance team and archery.
Enrichment activities include service learning, science fair, yearbook, a Christmas program, spring arts festival, International Peace Service, National Geography Bee, National Spelling Bee and Homework Club. There is after-school care until 5 p.m. daily, and a summer enrichment program June through August.
This month’s Catholic Schools Week is an opportunity to demonstrate the faith and academics of the school to the wider community. The week will include a Sunday Mass with students and their families, an open house, a brown-bag lunch for parents and community members such as the mayor, re-registration for the following school year and a fish-fry dinner fundraiser.
Food itself seems to be one of the themes of the current school year. A new “farm-to-school” lunch program started a few years ago with chickens in the school’s back lot, and has since grown to a parent-volunteer grant-funded lunch program where children will soon be sampling their own vegetables grown in an USDA greenhouse.
Fresh foods are already being served this year, and plans for the greenhouse construction as early as this spring are in production. Students enjoy a 35-minute lunch period with home cooked foods in groups of eight or nine per table. Younger students are paired with older children to facilitate relaxing, teachable moments.
“This is not a crazy lunch room,” Cleary noted. “We are helping them understand about food, about social teaching, about food independence.”
“Being on an island, we have to be aware of that,” he added.
The farm-to-school lunch program will also include a farmer’s market in the summer, with plans for excess food going to Kodiak’s local food bank.
Another grant, from the Alaska Community Foundation, is allowing the school to create a strategic plan later this year.
“Education is really focusing more and more on the individualized learning of each child,” Cleary said.
Stressing that St. Mary’s works with the local public school district, Cleary highlighted some of the reasons Kodiak families chose to send their children to the preschool through eighth grade school.
“We’re like a family,” he observed. “Certain kids like the small classroom; they just thrive in that environment.”
Cleary, a recipient of the St. Francis of Assisi Award in 2015 for his commitment to Catholic education, was also quick to express his gratitude toward the greater Catholic Church in supporting the remote school.
“I really appreciate all the support we are getting from Anchorage. It’s a new thing and it’s really great,” he said. “There is an effort at the archdiocesan level to better our Catholic schools and we are really benefiting from that.”