Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
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DeSales High School blessed by generations of commitment
Story and photo by Mitch Finley, Inland Register staff
(From the Dec. 1, 2005 edition of the Inland Register)
This is John Lesko’s sixth year as principal of DeSales. He graduated from the school in 1979. (IR photo)
At one time, DeSales High School in Walla Walla was staffed largely by priests and women Religious. Those days included diocesan priests as principal and vice-principal; the Sisters of Providence as faculty. For some years a few Marianist Brothers served the school as both administration and faculty.
Those years are long gone, of course. The Sisters left DeSales and moved on to other ministries. The priests were needed in parishes. The pioneering laity on the faculty at DeSales, Jerry Anhorn and Bill Gray, moved on and were replaced by other lay teachers. Today’s students are educated, and their faith is formed and nourished, by an administration and faculty that are made up entirely of laity – and not infrequently by men and women who graduated from DeSales themselves.
A good is example is the principal, John Lesko – a member of DeSales High School’s class of 1979. Professionally, he has been at DeSales for some 20 years and is beginning his sixth year as principal.
Lesko highlights the fact that Walla Walla’s Catholic community has supported Catholic schools for over 141 years. The first Catholic school in Walla Walla, St. Vincent Academy for girls, opened in 1864. The second, St. Patrick Academy for boys, opened the following year. Between 1889 and 1920, the boys’ school became LaSalle Institute and was staffed by the Christian Brothers. From 1920-1928, the old LaSalle Building functioned as the elementary school, until the new St. Patrick Grade School opened, remaining in operation until 1969. The two high schools, for girls and boys, merged in 1932 as St. Patrick High School and served until the new DeSales High School opened in September of 1959.
“This speaks to the commitment of people in Walla Walla, and the church, to Catholic education,” Lesko says. “DeSales has been around now for 45 years, so we’ve really developed a tradition. We have a couple of generations now of commitment to DeSales High School.
“There aren’t a lot of Catholic high schools in the diocese, let alone in a small city like Walla Walla,” he said. He sees the smaller size as a distinct advantage, allowing the school “to have a family atmosphere, where people are dedicated to making sure things happen. The kids, for the most part, know one another, from kindergarten through high school.”
Today the student body at DeSales numbers 142, with the average graduating class in recent years numbering between 30 and 35. More than 90 percent of the students who leave Assumption School, the local Catholic elementary school, continue their education at DeSales.
“It’s a tremendous advantage for us to be able to tell parents that we’re going to take a kid at a young age, and with the parents’ help, we’re going to transform” the children so that they are “ready for life after high school.”
Principal Lesko says that everyone concerned is “very proud” of the young people who have graduated from DeSales over the years. “The last six years, I think with the exception of one student, all our kids have at least started at some sort of college level work, which speaks very well of the commitment of our families, and our faculty, and what we’re producing.”
Basic to what DeSales High School is about, said Lesko, is “what we’re doing for the faith formation of our kids. We’re constantly evaluating.”
Today, there are two tuition rates. One rate applies to students who come to the school from one of the three Walla Walla parishes, since those parishes subsidize those students’ tuition. A second tuition rate applies to Catholic students from nearby communities and for non-Catholic students. The parish rate for grades 9 and 10 is $4,300 and the non-parish rate is $5,900. For grades 11 and 12 the parish rate is $5,000, and the non-parish rate is $6,000. Lesko admits that it’s “a tremendous commitment for a family” to send a youngster to DeSales. But he is quick to add that “we have a pretty generous tuition assistance program that gives over $100,000 each year to families that need that assistance.”
Beginning sometime in the 1970s, DeSales was a combination middle school and high school. The 2005-2006 school year saw a return to the traditional four-year high school model, and Walla Walla’s Assumption School returned to an elementary school model of grades one through eight.
DeSales is fortunate, Lesko says, to have a tradition established in the community which results in significant support from local alumni and other community groups and businesses who believe in what DeSales is about. “I think it speaks highly of what we’re up to here, that so many are committed to the school. It’s a benefit to us to use all the resources we have and the wisdom of a wider group of supporters,” Lesko says.
All DeSales students take a religion class each year. Freshmen take Introduction to Catholicism and Church History. Sophomores take Old Testament and New Testament. Juniors take classes that deal with morality, and seniors take one course on peace and justice topics, followed by a senior community service project.
DeSales has a strong community service program, as well as a retreat program.
“Our kids are heavily into community service,” says the principal “All students are required to participate in community service all four years, and it culminates in a senior project, which includes 32 community service hours as a part of the senior spring religion class. They go out to help at various agencies in town, including Birthright, Catholic Charities, and so forth – anything to give the kids a one-on-one experience of helping others.”
Several years ago, DeSales began having separate retreats for each grade level. “The religion teachers are involved, but we usually bring in a speaker or facilitator, too. The retreats happen once a year, but we want to expand that to twice a year,” Lesko said
John Lesko declares in no uncertain terms that he feels blessed to be in the position he is in now at DeSales. “I feel fortunate to be with the people I work with, and I’m thankful for the kids. With the faculty, the turnover rate is virtually nonexistent. The parents are tremendous, just so completely behind the school. It’s just a great place to be.”