St. Helen: Educating kids for 100 years

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Sunday, September 21, 2014

Maria Montesanto visits with Sofia Conner during a break from activities on Aug. 22, 2007 at St. Helen School. The school marks its 100th anniversary this year. (Karen Callaway/Catholic New World)

St. Helen School, 2347 W. Augusta Ave., celebrated its 100th anniversary with its most famous alumnus, Duke University’s Coach Mike Krzyzewski (Class of 1961), last June, and it plans to celebrate again this fall with a visit from Cardinal George, said school principal Marianne Johnson.

What’s most significant, Johnson said, is that the school survived a downturn in its enrollment when the neighborhood was home to mostly older people. Now that the neighborhood has become a haven for young families, Johnson is dealing with a pleasant problem: how to find room for everybody.

Ten years ago, when Johnson arrived, the school had only 75 students registered over the summer for the following school year. This year, it has 430 children, with 160 of them in eight preschool classes.

It’s a far cry from the school’s highest enrollment of 1,300 in the 1960s, but then, nobody’s advocating going back to the days of 60 to 65 children in a classroom,

“Everybody’s having three children,” Johnson said. “Everywhere you go, you see double strollers. And they are staying in the neighborhood. We started by building from the bottom up.”

The school also made a point of offering as many kinds of clubs and activities as it could. Now students can choose from a score of options.

“Parents wanted one-stop shopping,” she said. “They didn’t want to have to pick the kids up to school and take them here and there and there for other activities.” Those could get a boost this year, with the money raised at the June celebration going to refurbish the school’s gym.

St. Helen students have learned a bit about the history of their school by participating in a collaborative effort with other Big Shoulders schools, in which they learn about and visit one another’s neighborhoods, and they have seen historic photos and videos created for the 100th anniversary celebration.

Some of the older students talked with alumni to collect oral histories about their time at school, including one student who spoke by phone with Coach K.

“What they were most struck by was the way their lives mirrored each other,” Johnson said. “The things they thought were important, the things they liked about St. Helen, those were the same.”


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