Opportunity is what makes a Catholic school special,” says Tobias Harkleroad, principal of Saint Francis International School in Silver Spring, Maryland. The school’s opening in August 2010 gave its nearly 450 students the opportunity to continue to learn, live, and grow in their faith, as two of its nearby schools—St. Camillus in Silver Spring and St. Mark the Evangelist in Hyattsville, Maryland—were struggling to stay open.
Under the leadership of Harkleroad; Brother Gerald Hopeck, OFM, vice principal; Father Michael Johnson, pastor of St. Camillus; and Father John Dillon, pastor of St. Mark, the schools combined to form Saint Francis International in the former St. Camillus School.
For many, the decision to close the more than 50-year-old institutions was difficult to accept. “I think very often in other situations when parishes and schools are faced with reimagining their mission and identity for today, they get too wound up in the fear of death and of losing something special, and that makes them unable to see the hope of what could be,” says Harkleroad. “What I think we represent is the need for Catholic parishes and schools to look beyond established ‘borders’ when asking how are we called to proclaim the Gospel right now. The New Evangelization is wrapped up in this challenge—how do we be a people spreading the Gospel today while respecting and drawing upon our tradition?
“Essentially, we had to embrace one of the most difficult tenets of our faith: the Resurrection is only possible after death on the cross.”
Today, Saint Francis International is brimming with life, as kindergarten through eighth-grade students learn the lessons and values of their school’s namesake.
“Francis is perfect for relating the radical call of the Gospel and Baptism with students because he was so normal and of his time before his conversion,” says Harkleroad. “He just wanted to be happy. . . . But he was faced with the harsh realities of life when his quest to be a knight wound him up in a prison and when a prolonged illness made him question his choices in life. Kids get that story, and once you can explain to them how the second part of the story—the poverty, the hard work—was all about finding real happiness, they get that part, too.”
The motto at St. Francis is corde incipite: “start with heart.” “We believe our goal as a Franciscan school is to use whatever means we can to incarnate Jesus Christ and his
Gospel in our school community so that students will feel him, love him, and follow him,” Harkleroad says.