By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published October 13, 2011
DECATUR–Teacher Teresa Carnes steers her pint-sized girls and boys at St. Peter Claver Regional Catholic School to their chairs, instructing them gently to keep their hands to their sides and put their lunch boxes away.
The letter A is getting special attention on the blackboard: Apple, airplane, ant are written in chalk. “The Grouchy Ladybug” and “The Little Engine That Could” are ready for class reading. An illustration of St. Peter Claver tells the story about the man known as the “servant of the African slaves.”
As they do after every lunch, with young voices they pray aloud. “We give you thanks for all your benefits almighty God, who lives and reigns forever. May the souls of the faithful departed, through your mercy, rest in peace.” Then the students line up for recess.
“Every morning when I get up, I want to come to work,” said Carnes.
The school, tucked behind Sts. Peter and Paul Church, Decatur, has 150 students enrolled this year, as it celebrates its 10th anniversary as a regional school. It was established from the merger of three predominantly black Catholic parochial schools, two at the parishes of St. Anthony of Padua and Our Lady of Lourdes and the third at Sts. Peter and Paul. The closures drew protests from some parishioners. While located at Sts. Peter and Paul, St. Peter Claver School began a new life as a regional school, drawing students from several parishes.
Today, it has its largest enrollment ever, with a waiting list for some grades. It is making inroads in becoming more diverse. Staff and teachers serve a working class community and last year one in four students received a free or reduced price meal. The school remains the smallest of the five regional elementary schools in the Catholic school system in metro Atlanta.
Principal Pam Moor in her office set up a shrine of photos of her family, a Bible, a statue of St. Martin de Porres, the patron saint of interracial justice. She’ll pray at this small table throughout the day.
Moor is starting her second year at the school, arriving from a Catholic school in the American Virgin Islands. Teaching was a profession she aspired to enter as a youngster in California, she said. She sees the role as being an “advocate for children.”
She’s introduced some changes at the school. Students gather with their classmates now in the school gym before heading to classes to open the day with prayer, reflection and the Pledge of Allegiance.
“It’s great to start the day Christ-centered,” she said.
Another recent change was to enhance the school’s layout. During the summer, a front entrance for the school was designed to give parents and visitors a central entry to the administrative offices, said Moor.
“It is a small school, where everyone knows each other like an extended family. Everyone watches out for each other and maintains the family settings,” she said.
The faculty and staff work to keep the balance of academics, spiritual growth and extracurricular activities, she said. Moor said the school is paying special attention in the areas of standardized test scores and transitioning between the elementary grades and middle school.
Carnes is one of the longest serving teachers there, instructing young people for the past 20 years. She was recruited from the DeKalb County schools to start the pre-kindergarten program.
“I didn’t want to babysit. I wanted to teach, really teach children,” she said.
And she’s been doing it ever since.
Carnes insists parents have a big role in education. But she said her most important task is to teach students something that cannot be measured by test scores: “love of God and love of self.”
“You are special. You are unique and intelligent. You are important. That’s what I want them to know,” she said, sitting on a child-sized chair in her classroom that overlooks a grassy play area.
It’s a lesson Elysa McBean took from her schooling here. She graduated as the valedictorian at the regional school. She’s now a junior at Our Lady of Mercy High School in Fayetteville.
“It felt close knit. The teachers were there for you,” she said. And she still runs into her teachers at the parish, where she is an altar server. “It’s fun seeing them. They’ve seen me grow up,” said McBean, who said she relished English class in middle school with its creative writing sessions and interesting discussions.
Her grandmother, Elsa McBean, drove her the 30 minutes to school from their home in Stockbridge.
“The school environment is like home. Everybody knows everybody. You notice in the school there is no heap of noise. It was not a sacrifice, this is where I wanted her to go,” she said.
The school leaders are raising its profile in DeKalb County and Decatur. School administrators reach out to parents at other private elementary schools to tell them what St. Peter Claver has to offer and they are encouraging current parents to talk up the school more. Moor credits those efforts with increasing the student population to 150 students this school year, an increase of some 26 percent over last year. In addition, the school has recently seen an increase in Hispanic students, with 15 entering this year, she said.
Students filled the front rows in Sts. Peter and Paul Church where Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory celebrated the anniversary Mass, along with several other priests and deacons.
“Now, you’ve turned 10 years old. You’ve survived 10 years of schooling. You’ll be part of the history, part of the history of the school. You’ll make your contribution,” said the archbishop.
He touched on the troubled past, acknowledging that things don’t go as planned, but students and staff now have the courage to face the future.
In Carnes’ classroom, students are shaped into future learners filled with faith. She sees her role as guiding the children toward independence and instilling in the young people a love of learning.
“They don’t really know they are learning. They are having fun,” she said. “That’s a fulfillment for me.”