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. John Vianney School rejoices in its community
Story and photo by Mitch Finley, Inland Register staff
(From the April 27, 2006 edition of the Inland Register)
Eighth graders lend a hand as kindergartners create Easter art at St. John Vianney School in Spokane Valley. (IR photo)
Walk down a hallway at Spokane Valley’s St. John Vianney School, and you might wonder if some mystic graffiti artist got into the school and went a little wild.
Above each classroom door, in large, black, hand-drawn characters, is a string of mysterious letters and numbers: 20+C+M+B+06.
Amidst wispy clouds of sweet incense and prayers for the safety of the school and all who inhabit it, the pastor of St. John Vianney Parish, Father Ty Schaff, inscribed the “code” above the classroom doors. The “20” at the beginning, and the “06” at the end, are for the current calendar year, 2006. The Gospel of Matthew (2:1) says that “magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem” to see the infant Jesus. Legend numbers the magi at three and names them Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar – so the letters in the middle of Father Schaff’s code are the first letters in the names of the magi.
The story of the magi “represents the coming of the Christ and that he is coming for the entire world,” said Richard Pelkie Jr., principal of St. John Vianney. “Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar represent the three different races, again symbolizing the entire world.” On Jan. 6, the Friday before the Feast of the Epiphany, Father Schaff blessed each classroom, writing the code over the classroom door to stand for the fact that each classroom also welcomes the entire world into the school community.
Pelkie is in his first year as principal at St. John Vianney, but he has been serving in Catholic schools in the Diocese of Spokane for 12 years: nine years at St. Thomas More as a seventh and eighth grade teacher, then athletic director and assistant principal for his last three years there. “I got the bug to try it myself” and served for two years as principal of St. Paschal School, also in Spokane Valley.
He was born and raised in Spokane and attended public schools. Upon graduation from Eastern Washington University, however, he thought he would like to “give Catholic schools a try.” Now, he says, “I can’t see myself anywhere else. I always tell my wife that we’re going to be poor. The money is definitely not what motivates me. It’s the idea of kids just being able to walk into my office, and being around those kids and chatting with them, that is the most important thing. Of course, in Catholic education we are able to take it one step further and share our faith with one another, which to me is just so ideal because you get that deeper appreciation for one another when you share the faith with students, and teachers, and families. You really get to know them, you get to know who they are, and that’s what makes the community so great, because we’re at an intimate level, not just a superficial level.”
Pelkie graduated from Eastern Washington University and earned a master’s degree from Leslie College’s outreach program from Cambridge, Mass. He then received his administrative credentials from Washington State University.
For this principal, Catholic education is something of a family affair. His father is Richard Pelkie Sr., the long-time principal at Spokane’s Cataldo School.
St. John Vianney School dates its origins to August of 1953. When it opened, the school was staffed by the Dominican Sisters of Sinsinawa, Wis. That first year, 102 students were enrolled, but even with eight classrooms in the new building, the school could accommodate only the first four grades.
The parish decided to continue building classrooms in order to add one grade per year until all students in all eight grades could attend, and the parish reached this goal in 1957. In 1959, St. Michael’s Hall – named for the school’s first principal, Sister Michaelina – went up, and for the first time an eighth grade graduation was held in the hall.
Until 1988, the school’s original gym doubled as the parish church. Today the structure is a multi-purpose room that houses the library, multi-media center, computer center, three classrooms, a conference room/lunch room for teachers and staff, and the principal’s office.
Since the last of the Dominican Sisters departed in 1990, St. John Vianney has been staffed entirely by laity. All principals have been laity since 1986. That was the year the school began to include preschool and kindergarten programs.
As with all Catholic schools, fund-raising is always a concern. St. John Vianney has five major events each year aimed at bringing in the cash needed to keep the school going and subsidizing tuitions.
“We have a scrip program,” says Pelkie, “which means that we purchase gift certificates from local stores at a reduced cost and sell them at face value to our parents. So they might purchase a $20 gift certificate for a supermarket that cost the school $19.50. It takes a lot of volume to make our money, but that usually brings into the school $20,000 or so, which is pretty good. We have great participation in the scrip program, and it’s all run by volunteers, which is another sign of how great our volunteers are.”
This year’s annual auction will be held at the Spokane Convention Center. Other projects include a Healthy Heart Fun Run and a magazine subscription sale. The biggest and most important source of extra income is a monthly subsidy from the parish.
“The parish has decided that the school is a ministry of the parish, and we’re very important to this parish, and so they give us a subsidy every month, and that’s the parish’s commitment to what Catholic education means to the parish,” said Pelkie. “The amount that the parish gives is just about equal to all of our other fundraisers together.”
Like most Catholic schools these days, St. John Vianney has a fair share tuition program that allows parents to pay what they can really afford toward each child’s tuition. “Most of the fundraisers support the fair share tuition program and the general operation of the school,” he said.
Both parish priests, Fathers Ty Schaff and Charles Skok, help out with school Masses. “During the fun times, like Advent or Lent, they really do some special things for us,” Pelkie says. “Plus their simple presence speaks for itself. Also, they like to be invited into classrooms. They bless each classroom every year.”
Pelkie has dreams for the school. “We’re moving forward. We just put together a presentation for our community, for registration time, on all the things we accomplished and the directions we want to move in. The physical plant is in good shape, so we want to continue that. We just purchased 20 laptop computers on a mobile cart that are being used, and it’s all wireless, so the teachers can just roll them in to their classrooms and away they go. Our technology use is increasing by leaps and bounds. We’re going to look into the arts more and work on our art program. Next year we’re implementing a choir. We’re adding continually to what I think is already a great academic school.”
Having experienced three different Catholic schools, he says that in all of them, he has been impressed by the sense of community he found there.
“Not only do we have lots of great volunteers, but within the school itself, you’ll see things like a buddy system that involves all the grades,” he said. “For instance, our eighth graders, on a regular basis, are down in that kindergarten room working one-on-one with those kids, working on their penmanship, their reading, their writing, and their math. Having a child of my own who is in the preschool, starting off not knowing any letters in the alphabet, now she’s almost ready to read, and she’s not even in kindergarten yet. The help that the older kids give the younger kids makes for a fabulous community.”