By REBECCA RAKOCZY, Special To The Bulletin | Published January 29, 2009
A lot can happen in a decade.
Just ask Kathy Wood.
Ten years ago, she was starting her first fall as dean of students at St. Pius X High School in Atlanta.
Miles away in Roswell, the Archdiocese of Atlanta was opening Queen of Angels School, one of three new regional K-8 schools built to meet the increasing demand for Catholic education in the suburbs of metro Atlanta.
Wood had watched the archdiocese “grow, grow, grow,” in her job at St. Pius and previously as principal at St. John Neumann School in Lilburn. She even got to look at the plans of the new schools in the mid-1990s, as part of an archdiocese school committee.
“We talked about the set-up of the classrooms, if they were in a good location,” Wood recalled. She was able to make a few suggestions as to the layout of the schools.
So it was a pleasant shock that less than a decade after reviewing those plans she found herself in one of the new schools. Sister Patricia Clune, Queen of Angels’ founding principal, left the archdiocese to care for her ailing parents; Wood was named to the job in 2003.
“I never thought in a million years that I would be able to be in the very school I was able to give my two cents in,” she said. “It’s so funny how things go around. When I walked into this fantastic school, I couldn’t believe it.”
On Sept. 16, Queen of Angels will officially celebrate its 10th anniversary of opening in September 1999; this current academic year has been dedicated to the Blessed Mother. Activities and fundraisers throughout the year will mark the anniversary.
Wood was already familiar with the school’s “H” configuration when she arrived: lower grades on one side, upper grades on the other, joined by a “silent” prayer hallway. On each side of the building there are also spacious living areas called “pods” that link the classrooms.
This is where students can have small assemblies for special speakers or just use it for quiet study, tutoring or art projects without disturbing their classmates, Wood said.
Sharing the pods are boys and girls separate bathrooms. In the lower school pod, the walls are gaily painted with children’s art—bugs, dinosaurs and funny “monsters” on the boys side; while playground scenes, daisies and shining suns decorate the girls’ lavatory. Parent volunteers transferred the art to the walls.
In the cafeteria, one side of the stage is filled with music stands and chairs for band class. A partition divides the space; on the other side it opens up to a gymnasium. On this chilly day, students are playing inside instead of outside for recess and their laughter echoes off the walls.
More artwork is here: The walls feature larger-than-life silhouettes of children playing different sports.
Wood came to a school that already had a deep faith-based environment. Although it shares a campus with St. Peter Chanel Church, as a regional school it attracts students from 16 different parishes in the area, she said.
When religion teacher Mary Beth Smith wanted to broaden her students’ understanding of other faiths in a unique social justice project, Wood told her to go for it.
Smith came up with the idea of Faith on Wheels, and wrote a grant proposal to the National Catholic Educational Association.
The idea was simple, wrote Smith for the NCEA magazine, Momentum. Pack a suitcase with items related to your history, faith and culture. Make a video that explains the items in the suitcase and include a “day in the life of” video from your school to share with students of another religion.
Queen of Angels invited Sister Clara Mohammed School, an Islamic K-12 program, and The Epstein School, a Jewish day school, to participate in the program. The schools accepted, sending their own “suitcase of faith” to Queen of Angels. Sharing also included a luncheon at Queen of Angels with students from all the schools meeting in person for the first time.
The project was so successful both Smith and Wood were invited to present it to other teachers at the upcoming NCEA convention.
Technology plays an important role here, Wood noted. Seventh- and eighth-grade students involved in the multimedia class report the daily “news” of Queen of Angels on “WQOA.” Every morning, they broadcast the school’s mission and prayer from their state-of-the-art TV studio in the school.
The school’s robotics team, led by parents, went to state competition this year. And a small group of seventh-graders led the nation in their simulated future city design contest, taking first place for their essay, and fifth in the nation for excellence in environmental design and engineering. The group recently traveled to Washington, D.C., for their second competition, Wood said.
These programs are electives and round out the academic preparation here, she said.
“When I arrived here in 2003, the school already had a strong curriculum in place,” she said.
In 2007, Queen of Angels received a national Blue Ribbon School of Excellence award—the first new school in the archdiocese to do so. Recently the school renewed its SACS accreditation and also received accreditation from the Southern Association of Independent Schools.
As with many of the archdiocesan schools, the demand for Catholic education meant there was a waiting list at Queen of Angels when the doors opened in 1999.
That has remained pretty constant over the past 10 years.
“Queen of Angels has been filled to capacity with 504 students, and we have waiting lists in every grade,” Wood said.
Roswell parent Mary Nichols knew that demand, even before the first shovelful of dirt was pulled from the ground.
“Ground had not even been broken, but I saw the sign announcing the new school,” Nichols said.
A product of Catholic education in Memphis, Tenn., she was anxious to give her oldest daughter, Madison, the same opportunity.
“Going to a Catholic school was important to me. They shaped me to who I became, and I really want that for my kids,” she said. Then a rising kindergartner, Madison joined other potential students at Transfiguration Church, where they took entrance tests for the school.
“When she was accepted, we were thrilled,” Nichols said.
An active parent volunteer, Nichols has been past president of the home and school organization and substitutes for classes occasionally. Her daughter is now a freshman at Blessed Trinity High School; Nichols’ son is still at Queen of Angels.
“This is a positive environment. Everyone is supportive of everyone else. You can really feel it,” she said.
Parent Gina Manley concurs.
“Our first year here was Dr. Wood’s first year. We hit the ground running and have never looked back. What I really like about our school is that there are so many ways you can be involved—there really is something for everybody. Everyone is involved because they want to be involved. We are all here for a reason, and we know it always comes back to benefit the children.”
Although the architecture of the new regional schools is similar, and each is near a parish church, Queen of Angels is unique because it shares its campus with Blessed Trinity High School and St. George Village retirement community.
“The whole point of this campus, you start here, and move through (to high school) and maybe you’ll eventually end up here (in the retirement village),” Wood said.
More often than not, you’ll find the younger children at St. George’s around the year, marching in a Halloween parade, Christmas caroling, or working with residents making baby blankets for an abused women’s shelter. The residents also help out during afternoon carpool.
“One resident helps with carpool in rain or cold. I feel so safe with him out there,” said Wood.
An annual spring eucharistic procession and Mary crowning has become a tradition here, joining all four communities (St. Peter Chanel, St. George’s and Blessed Trinity) on the athletic fields of Blessed Trinity.
The growth of the school as it moves into its next decade is encouraging to parents.
Said Nichols, “You can really feel like we’re heading in the right direction and we’re where we need to be.”