Catholic education has been in the heart of Hershey for 94 years. The traditions of Catholic education have thrived, with generations sending their children to the school they called home when they were kids. That’s pretty good proof that something is very right about a school – in this case, St. Joan of Arc.
Building on their past, the school embarked on a bold move last summer under the leadership of Father Al Sceski, pastor, and Daughters of Mercy Sister Eileen McGowan, principal. They left the confines of their aging, space- limited building next to the church, surrounded by residential neighborhoods that the great chocolatier tycoon Milton Hershey laid out himself for his industrial “utopic” town, which inarguably flourished in the early to mid-20th century.
Located some four miles south of town on the heights above the Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, St. Joan of Arc’s new home now is a three-story building that was constructed 12 years ago as a Christian school before the parish bought it to expand and grow. And expand and grow St. Joan’s is doing, despite a global pandemic that is challenging all schools nationwide to adjust and meet daily challenges of keeping its children safe.
According to the school’s 30-plus year principal, St. Joan of Arc is seeing a dramatic increase in enrollment. “We blended very well into the new building,” Sister Eileen said in an interview at the school, along with Father Sceski. “The teachers, students and parents all seem to be very pleased with what the new building gives us the ability to do.”
At the beginning of the school year Sister Eileen said that the enrollment was at 383, but given the positive vibes everybody had about the new building and how well the school was doing in keeping Covid-19 exposure to a bare minimum, over Christmastime, the school saw a jump in enrollment by more than 10 percent. Given that social distancing must still be practiced, which limits class size to 21 students, the school actually now has a waiting list for the 2021-22 school year, which is a terrific “problem” to have. Sister Eileen expects nearly 480 students next autumn with perhaps 500 if social distancing requirements are eased this summer. There is a waiting list for every class right now.
“As of right now, which is different from just last year, we are planning to have two full classes in each grade,” Father Sceski said, smiling. “We will possibly have 25 in each class after Covid, and we certainly have room to go even more.”
He said at the old school downtown, there were only six acres of ground that housed the school, church, rectory and offices. “We now have 110,000 square feet of building on 35 acres,” he said. There is also a farm and house on the property, which the school will use for Christmas traditions and future fund-raising events.
Clearly the new building is an attractive quality that is appealing to families seeking a safe school for their children. In addition to the space to have multiple classes in each grade, the new location also gives students plenty of outdoor area to play and enjoy recess time with their friends. Not only is there room to grow, the school has technology assets already built in, giving teachers options in teaching and conversing with their students. The school is also air-conditioned and easy to climate control.
Moreover, the school has the most current computer and STEM-learning programs available for all students. This new building has a third floor, which Sister Eileen and Father Sceski both say is their “major goal” to complete and dedicate to a “middle school” for grades 6 through 8. That third floor would also have a future chapel as well as classrooms and studios where music and the arts can thrive.
“Not only are we a Blue Ribbon School academically, and we are STEM-certified, but most important to us is our Catholic identity, that it is a Christ-like atmosphere here at the school every day,” Father Sceski stressed. “Sister and I take it very seriously to evangelize in a gentle and tender way to our students. We try and show the Catholic way here and keep the traditions that have been taught here since the 1940s.”
“We do all the Catholic things we did at the old school, but just in a different way now that we have space and options to do things in a safe way because of Covid,” Sister Eileen said. “It is no question that this year has been a challenge for teachers given the pandemic…but our faculty works so well together, they just do, and no matter what problem may come up, we all work together. We also have wonderful, wonderful parents who are very supportive, and they are grateful that we have done so well during the pandemic in staying open. They just appreciate our staff so much and show it.”
Sister Eileen added that it is just not the faculty, but the maintenance and custodians who have diligently cleaned the school thoroughly all year, as well as the cafeteria staff who have been great at making this challenging school year a blessing. The school community, students especially, have followed masking and distancing guidelines with very little complaint, according to Sister Eileen, and she is grateful to her student body for being so cooperative.
There is a great deal that is new at St. Joan of Arc School these days, and the numbers are proof to that truth. But the long proven treasured traditions of Catholic education in Hershey, religiously passed on from generation to generation, is what gives this new school its place in the heart of Hershey.
(Photos by Chris Heisey, The Catholic Witness.)
By Chris Heisey, The Catholic Witness