By STEPHEN O’KANE, Staff Writer | Published January 29, 2009
Just a few days before opening night, the Holy Redeemer School gymnasium was busy with activity as middle school students belted out the songs they had been practicing for months and made the final adjustments on their costumes.
Parents, teachers and staff also were busy as they directed students and polished the sets that would be featured during the production of Meredith Willson’s “The Music Man.”
The scene looked more like something you would find at a theater on a college campus than the gymnasium of an elementary and middle school.
More than 160 sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders at the school reached the climax of months of hard work as they put on a production of the musical for their families and friends the weekend of Jan. 23.
Catholic Schools Week at Holy Redeemer kicks off every year with the middle school play, a concrete example of how important the arts are to the school.
Dr. Eric Westley, who is serving in his third year as principal, said the school encourages expression through the arts. The students had been working on the production since the beginning of the school year, he said. Last year students performed “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.”
An expanded curriculum has shown the school’s affinity for artistic expression, as Holy Redeemer now features dance, graphic design and music classes.
Holy Redeemer is one of three Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Atlanta celebrating its 10-year anniversary this year. The three elementary schools, constructed as a result of the 1997 “Building the Church of Tomorrow” capital campaign, opened on Sept. 7, 1999.
Holy Redeemer is closely related to the neighboring parish of St. Brigid, where the students attend Mass once a week. The school opened about a year before the parish and parish Masses were first celebrated in the school’s gymnasium.
The regional archdiocesan school is located in Johns Creek, a northern suburb of Atlanta, and serves students from 14 parishes in the surrounding area. Holy Redeemer is accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools and is a member of the National Catholic Educational Association, Southern Association of Independent Schools and Georgia Independent School Association.
“I believe in, and am committed to, Catholic education,” commented Lauren Schell, who currently serves as the religious education coordinator for Holy Redeemer. “As a product of Catholic education, from elementary school through graduate school, I have experienced firsthand the impact that it has had on my life and I have been, and continue to be, committed to share that with my students.”
Schell is one of the many teachers and staff who have been with Holy Redeemer since it opened, and she has seen the community grow closer over the years. In fact, more than a dozen teachers have been at the school since it opened with its first principal, Mary Reiling. The sense of community shared by all those at Holy Redeemer is something in which they pride themselves and can be seen just walking through the school.
Once through the main doors, an inviting reception area awaits with comfortable chairs and couches, as well as a large-screen television with updates on what is happening at the school.
Walking through the halls, visitors see students’ artwork and academic work along the walls and seem always to be greeted with a smile if they pass someone along the way.
“This is an incredible community,” said Ardean West, director of admissions. “We see it all the time and sometimes we take it for granted.”
West said that the 10th anniversary was a good time to remember and celebrate the sense of community that has been growing stronger over the last decade. With an enrollment last year of 497, members of the school have the chance to really get to know one another.
“Holy Redeemer School stands out because of its staff who work tirelessly to help our students be successful learners, our parents who support our mission as a school, and our children who bring their gifts to share with us each year,” said third-grade teacher Jan Hartzell, another member of the staff who has been at Holy Redeemer since 1999.
But building a strong sense of community does not mean education is taken lightly by those associated with Holy Redeemer.
“Catholic education truly enables us, as both parents and educators, to have the best of everything—excellent academics and a strong faith life supported by our community,” said Schell.
All of Holy Redeemer’s teachers are certified, and 58 percent of them hold advanced degrees. The faculty has an average of 17 years of teaching experience.
A strong phonetically-based school, Holy Redeemer features reading and writing as two major components of the curriculum.
“The students do a lot of writing,” said Westley, adding that teachers are encouraged to include a writing component in all of their tests, no matter what the subject.
Technology is also something that the school uses to meet its strong academic standards. Computers, networked in a wireless environment, give the students opportunities to experience the benefits of technology that have been incorporated into the academic curriculum.
Students produce a magazine and a newspaper throughout the year. Several are also involved with WHRS, a closed-circuit television news broadcast put on by students every day to keep the community informed.
Building a community outside of the classroom is also something important to Holy Redeemer. Several opportunities are presented every year for students to become involved with the surrounding community.
All grades complete a different service project each year as part of an effort to encourage spiritual development. The younger grades hold blanket drives or coat collections for local homeless shelters, while the older students distribute meals at shelters, participate in hunger walks and raise money for a pregnancy crisis center.
The students also celebrate Veterans Day by reaching out to veterans in their community and inviting them to the school to share in the festivities.
Parents are given chances to gather together as well, at a mothers retreat held every fall and spring and a fathers breakfast held every January.
In addition, West said parents are always willing to help out, whether it be driving another student to an extracurricular activity if the child’s parent is sick or simply lending a hand with after-school programs.
“The support, volunteer time and cooperation of our parents allows us not only to offer additional activities and spiritual experiences for our students but also enables us to support one another as a community when a need arises,” added Schell.
As part of the anniversary year, students, faculty and staff wear red golf shirts with a special anniversary logo every Wednesday. It is a way to show pride in their school and community, West said.
In addition to “The Music Man” production, Holy Redeemer planned several events for Catholic Schools Week. On Monday, the entire school celebrated Mass and the students also took time to write their parents a letter, thanking them for sending them to Catholic school.
Keeping with the community focus, the students celebrated a “Wear a Pair/Share a Pair” day in which they were allowed to wear slippers to school if they brought in a pair to donate to a homeless shelter. The community also gathered school supplies for the Atlanta Urban Ministry, which aids the poor and homeless.
The celebration of Catholic Schools Week at Holy Redeemer shows the dedication the school has to Catholic education and the community around them.
“We are the salt of the earth,” is the school-wide theme for this academic year, based on the Gospel of Matthew.
“In putting these words into practice we are challenged to use our talents to make positive contributions and fulfill our responsibility to leave our world a better place,” wrote Westley in a note on the school’s Web site. “This is a challenge to both our teachers and our students. Each has a role to play in this challenge to use what God has given us. Our school environment, curriculum, activities and community all give meaning to this responsibility in what we say and in what we do.”
“Holy Redeemer is an excellent school, with both academic and community strengths. Our teachers are committed to the students and we have excellent parental support,” said Schell.
“We are a school family of many, not perfect, but our members genuinely want to help, care for and support one another,” said Hartzell. “It’s a wonderful school to be associated with; I have enjoyed every minute of my 10 years here.”