Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302
St. Charles School: ‘allowing the Lord to guide us’
Story and photo by Bonita Lawhead, Inland Register staff
(From the Dec. 18, 2003 edition of the Inland Register)
Students at St. Charles School in Spokane have been deep into Christmas activities these past weeks. Concerts, a Christmas program, ornament making...all were done by students in one grade level or other in preparation for the season.
One such event was the Christmas concert at the church, given by students in grades two through six under the direction of their music teacher, Mike Saccomanno. Another Yule activity was hands-on art. A large artificial Christmas tree in the hallway of the school was decorated with ornaments made by students. A code sheet, explaining which grades made which ornaments, invited parents to take one from the proper grade level as a gift from their child.
Christmas activities will soon give way to different events focused on U.S. presidents, Martin Luther King, and Valentine’s Day, as winter settles in. The seasons have come and gone for St. Charles students for over 50 years.
St. Charles School, at 4515 N. Alberta, was started in 1952 by the late Father (later Monsignor) Oakley O’Connor. The years after World War II were a time of explosive growth for Spokane. The area around St. Charles Parish experienced a large population increase in just a few short years. At first the school was barely able to keep up with its enrollment and had to add on to the school building to accommodate the growth.
But as the population changed, the number of students at the school gradually declined, a phenomenon experienced by most Catholic schools around the country. Two years ago, St. Charles School hit an economic low, the same year that Tom Feldhausen became principal. The school suffered through a round of serious budget-cutting last year, with everyone making sacrifices to bring the budget into balance.
But a change took place that brightened the school’s bleak economic picture. A phenomenally successful auction last year brought sparked a new level of enthusiasm.
“We’re seeing a surge of volunteers,” said Principal Tom Feldhausen. Those extra hands will benefit students and the school building itself in different ways. One very visible way is the hot lunch program. “We’re able to offer our hot lunch program three days a week now instead of only one,” Feldhausen said.
Trudy Girkins, ably assisted by her mother, Romelle McMillen, is in charge of the expanded lunch program. Though neither woman had prior food service experience, both were very involved at the school. Girkins directed the once-a-week lunch program and asked her mother to help her when the principal inquired about adding extra days.
There’s also “The Miracle of the Bathrooms.”
Feldhausen explained how three seventh grade girls started the bathroom clean-up. They wanted a project “to give something back,” he said, and they scrubbed the badly-discolored tile and grout in one of the girls’ restrooms. One thing led to another and now when students return to classes in January, the bathrooms will look like new, thanks to parent and other adult volunteers. Feldhausen credits the girls with the renewed interest in volunteerism.
Another renovated place is the school’s music room, primarily redone by Mike Saccomanno, the music director. The walls were painted in soft colors and on the north wall is a mural of a city skyline. Sacco-manno admitted asking his family to come help when he painted the mural. “I just couldn’t paint another skyscraper,” he said.
It was the lunch break when Principal Feldhausen gave a tour of the large school building. Though it might once have housed much larger numbers of students, there was still a steady stream of activity in the halls with students going to and from the lunchroom. One menu item appeared to be potatoes shaped like stars.
Students were glad to see their principal. Despite their lunch trays, hugs, high-fives and shouted greetings were the order of the day when students spotted him.
Feldhausen briefly explained his school philosophy. “We really try to build on the success of kids,” he said. A class of the month is named, and often, it’s two or three classes. “We recognize efforts more than the top academics,” Feldhausen said. “We think they deserve a pat on the back for their work.”
One unique honor is the Christian model of the month, to recognize kindness and courtesy, he said. Part of that, he said, is adults “have to model expectations for our kids. How can we expect (the students) to do something if we ourselves don’t do it?”
Feldhausen also believes learning “should be fun. You’re not going to teach kids anything if it isn’t,” he said. He has his own way of contributing to the fun. The principal is also a magician and has often given magic shows at special school parties. He confessed that he needed to learn some new tricks, though.
From the front, a visitor would have little idea of the school’s large size. The unusual structure of St. Charles Church to the north of the school draws attention away from the school building.
The gymnasium, which was built before the church, connects both buildings and is used for all manner of activities and events, from the parish Octoberfest to the school’s sports program.
On the south side of the building is the play yard for the preschoolers and they, too, were delighted to see the principal. One of those youngsters is Feld-hausen’s granddaughter.
St. Charles School has an extended care program. The program is important because it helps keep families together, Feldhausen said.
The seventh and eighth graders are located in their own area of the school, with more of the middle school concept used for those grades. Feldhausen said there are 280 students in preschool through eighth grade, with 13 staff members.
Nearly all parents volunteer or help out in one way or another and he said he couldn’t praise them enough for their work at the school.
Feldhausen describes school parents as a dedicated, committed group. One such parent is Kim McKenna, who chaired the auction held last year. It was her first year to take on that major fund-raising task. Past experience in development work helped with the scope of the project.
Her first experience was a rough go for a time, McKenna said. “The original location became unavailable eight weeks before the auction and we had to find another place,” she said.
Then the classic car donated by Principal Feldhausen, the centerpiece of the auction, was stolen. With the resulting publicity, an anonymous donor presented the school with a 2001 GMC truck and the auction went forward as planned. The vehicle’s sale gave a tremendous boost to the proceeds, and Feldhausen’s car was eventually recovered.
McKenna is already at work on the next auction. The event has been the school’s major fund-raiser for many years. “It takes a full year of planning and work,” she said.
McKenna has several important reasons for her three children to attend St. Charles School. One of those is that it is a way for her to be as involved as she chooses with her children’s education. “I like the community environment that allows parents to be fully involved,” she said.
Another reason is the size of the school. “The kids know each other so well,” she said. “They are so close to their classmates.”
A third and very important reason: the Christian morals and principles instilled in students. “It sure is nice to have that reinforced,” McKenna said.
Trudy Girkins has three children at St. Charles. She also likes being involved at school with her children. She said she believes that “the more a parent is involved, the more a child succeeds.” She likes the “hands-on” aspect and the close relationships she has developed with her children’s teachers.
But an additional factor was how, when something needs to be done, “it gets done. All Tom (the principal) needs to do is mention it,” she said. “There’s a sense of responsibility that he has instilled in parents and the community.”
McMillen, Girkins’ mother, is involved with all her grandchildren at the school, in addition to helping with the lunch program. She thinks the teachers are “the backbone of St. Charles. The closeness that parents have with them” is what makes the difference at St. Charles School.
Debra Keller’s perspective is a little different. As the head of a single-parent family “trying to pursue a career,” she wanted her two children to be in a place where they could get help. “Everyone (at the school) is so supportive,” she said.” I feel so lucky to have them. Every day I count my blessings. They are just the best people to us.”
Feldhausen had another philosophy to share, that of faith which underlies everything else: “If we keep our faith, keep things in prayer, and allow the Lord to guide us, he will get us there.”