Traffic was heavy in Parnell yesterday morning as a steady stream of cars pulled into the drive by St. Patrick School. White signs filled the front lawn, welcoming new students to the P-8 building. Nearby, Principal Scott Czarnopys stood at the entryway to shake hands and greet students and parents as they arrived. It’s a ritual he’ll repeat nearly every day for the next nine months.
“We think it’s important,” Czarnopys says, noting Fr. Mark Peacock, pastor of St. Patrick Parish, often joins him. “We want every student to know we’re glad they’re here.”
There are plenty of students to greet this year too. The current enrollment is 212, just three students shy of peak enrollment that occurred around the year 2000. Both the kindergarten and developmental kindergarten classes have waiting lists. The same is true for the 3-year old and 4-year old preschool programs.
Bigger School Presents Opportunities, Challenges
While St. Patrick’s struggled with enrollment during the last recession – student numbers bottomed out at 70 in 2010 – the rural school hasn’t had any trouble attracting new families in recent years. The 212 students walking the halls for the 2017-2018 school year represent an increase of 19 from last year.
“I believe people are yearning to be part of a family,” Czarnopys says. “There is a strong sense of family and closeness at St. Pat’s that is unique.” He attributes that atmosphere, along with shared values and a vibrant faith community, as reasons for the school’s success.
Success has brought with it a chance to expand programing and improve facilities. In the past few years, St. Patrick School has renovated classrooms, overhauled its library and added band as a daily part of the middle school curriculum.
It has taken some creativity to maximize space in the school and absorb the growing number of students. Rather than a dedicated computer lab, the school now has Chromebooks on a cart that can be used either in the library or the classroom. And when the school’s childcare program outgrew its area, a wall was knocked down in the parish center to combine two rooms for an expanded space this year.
However, the space constraints are a secondary concern for Czarnopys. Instead, his priority is ensuring St. Patrick’s doesn’t lose its small-school feel even as enrollment grows. “It takes extra effort to make sure every student receives the attention he or she deserves,” he says. “However, we are committed to our mission and to maintaining what makes St. Pat’s so great.”
Football Program Coming to St. Patrick School
With increased enrollment comes new opportunities for athletics. In the past, students had limited sports options and may have had to travel to other schools to participate in combined teams. That’s still true for some sports.
However, Frank Marshall, the outgoing athletic director, has been instrumental in expanding and strengthening the sports program at St. Patrick School during his five year tenure. Under his direction, the majority of eligible students – 80 in all – participated on sports teams last year.
In 2017, St. Patrick School will field its first 5th and 6th grade tackle football team in nearly 70 years. While the school has offered flag football more recently, the last time there was a tackle team at the elementary level is believed to be 1949.
Jamie Dye, a volleyball coach and the incoming athletic director, says she’s excited to meet new families and students. “My goal for the future of the sports program is to keep kids’ experiences of the sports they play positive,” she says. Expanding participation is another goal. “The more kids that represent the Fightin’ Irish outside of school in a positive way, the better.”
A new sport, new faces and new spaces are all part of the experience for St. Patrick students and staff this year. Czarnopys hopes others will feel welcome at the school as well. “We want to make St. Pat’s a reality for any family looking for a faith based education for their children,” he says.
Then, maybe next year, the school won’t be opening to near record enrollment. Maybe it will be announcing record enrollment – with no near about it.