Diocese’s oldest school built upon faith, family

Elizabeth Kassel, a religion teacher at St. Joseph School, Petersburg, teaches Joaquin Reisweber and Charlotte Stephenson, members of the junior kindergarten class, about the Nativity. (Photo/Kathryn/McElheny)

St. Joseph, Petersburg, marking 145th anniversary


For 145 years, St. Joseph School (SJS), Petersburg, has striven to form thousands of children as scholars, disciples and citizens.

Today, that’s being accomplished through prayer and a multifaceted curriculum that emphasizes religion, community service and academics.

And through love.

Love for students.

Love for learning.

Ben Uzel, SJS alumnus, said Catholic education in Petersburg traces its roots to 1846 when an all-girls school opened in a small building behind St. Joseph Church on Market Street. At the time, the more affluent Catholic families either hired private tutors or sent their daughters to “convent schools in the north,” but there were no Catholic educational opportunities for poorer girls.

A Catholic school for boys opened after the Civil War. In January 1876, the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul assumed responsibility to educate the boys and girls under one roof, thus creating SJS, now the oldest Catholic school in the diocese.

Originally, SJS had an elementary and a high school, but they separated in the 1950s, Uzel said. The high school became a regional school while the elementary school remained a parish one. Through the years, the high school, which no longer exists, had several names, including St. Joseph, Gibbons and St. Vincent.

Today, SJS sits at 123 Franklin Street and educates 130 students from junior kindergarten to eighth grade. The student body, which has students from 26 zip codes, is diverse. The school educates Catholics and non-Catholics from 22 churches and individuals from various socioeconomic backgrounds and racial groups, said Kathryn McElheny, development and enrollment director.

COVID limits the number of students to 14 per class, but normally each can accommodate 18, McElheny said. She hopes the school will have 140 pupils in the fall. Enrollment is open, and the school will have a virtual open house on Jan. 31.

Because classes are small, teachers tailor their instruction to students so they can work at their own pace. Principal Sarah Owens said that the “guided reading and math” allow the teacher to “really hone in and target student needs.”

As part of a community service project at St. Joseph School, fifth grader Olivia Evans makes a blanket for Fillmore Place assisted living. (Photo/Kathryn McElheny)

Teachers keep students engaged through educational activities. For example, when middle-school students studied the election process, they held a mock election. Kindergarteners learning about plants studied flowers they planted.

The school’s peacemaker program emphasizes a different value like fortitude, respect or kindness each month. Classes discuss the trait, and when teachers see a student illustrating it, they tack the name of the child and a description of the action to a bulletin board. At the end of the month, each teacher selects a child for the award, and Owens chooses a staff member.

“Winning peacemaker can make you feel good, but also seeing your friends win peacemaker is actually cool,” said seventh grader Trenton Townes, who has received the award several times.

Studying values teaches pupils how to make positive decisions and influences how they relate to one another, McElheny said, adding that she hopes the students will carry those traits for life.

The Christian value of philanthropy still resonates with Deacon Herb Funk and his wife, Rosemary, who attended SJS in the 1950s. As adults, they continued to be active in the parish and its outreach efforts, and Deacon Funk’s Catholic education was one reason he discerned to become a deacon.

McElheny said “a big thing we focus on is what we call 21st century learning skills,” which teach students the “interdisciplinary skills they need for today’s world” such as “how to problem solve, communicate, be creative and be critical thinkers.”

In addition to traditional academic and religion classes, the school has art, music, Spanish, library and physical education. Technology is integrated throughout the curricula. So is faith.

“Everything we do is because we’re being called out by God, and we are serving God,” Owens said.

As a result, some students through the years, including current third grader Allyson Wilkins and eighth grader McKenna Wallace, decided to become Catholic.

Wallace said attending SJS “really changed the way I think about people around the world and about different religions and just about God in general, too. It’s been quite an adventure,” she said.

The school’s “rigorous academics” and in-person classes attract many families. So does its loving, welcoming and family-like atmosphere, said McElheny.

Johana Marcela Arroyave- Agudelo felt that sense of family when her fourth grade daughter Sofia Ortega Arroyave missed a month of school in the fall because she was sick. She said the principal or teacher called daily, students prayed for Sofia and her classmates made cards for her. Mothers offered their support as well.

Families and students praised staff for their passion and dedication.

Juanisha Munford, whose son Arman Johnson is in first grade, said when she has a concern, staff answer her with a smile whether she asks “one question or 500 questions.” Townes said teachers are willing to work one on one with students, sometimes taking time out of their lunch break.

Kindergartener August Reisweber said, “These are the best teachers ever,” and second grader Annie Malik said, “My favorite thing about school is that my teachers are kind to me, and everybody is kind to me at school.”

Editor’s note: St. Joseph School is in the process of raising $650,000 by the start of the 2021-2022 school year. More information about its fundraising efforts is available at https:// www.saintjosephschool.com.

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