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As a Catholic educator celebrating Catholic Schools Week (Jan. 27-Feb. 2), I join many of my colleagues who eagerly await the release this fall of a new strategic plan by the Archdiocese of San Antonio that will serve as a blueprint for the future success of Catholic education in our city.

Credit Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller and his staff for demonstrating the leadership and resolve to face head-on the unfortunate realities that led to the closure of inner city parish schools beset by a lack of funding and declining enrollment.

Despite the closures and the continuing challenges we face, there are many beacons of light in the Catholic education system here in San Antonio. I serve as principal at one of those beacons of light, St. Anthony Catholic School in historic Monte Vista, which remains a thriving Pre-K through 8th grade school after more than 105 years. Some call us “little St. Anthony” to avoid confusion with St. Anthony Catholic High School, the former seminary, located on McCullough Avenue.

Students at St. Anthony's attend a spelling in the afternoon. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
Students at St. Anthony watch as their classmates compete in a spelling bee last week. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

The future of Catholic education in San Antonio was the subject of a recent article on the Rivard Report (“The Uncertain Future of San Antonio’s Inner City Catholic Schools“) which, in turn, has sparked a spirited public conversation about the topic and led me to contribute this posting.

In the fall 2012, the archdiocese’s department of Catholic schools, led by Superintendent Patricia Davis, formed a strategic planning committee led by Drs. John Convey and Leonard DeFiore from The Catholic University of America in Washington D.C. The committee was charged with producing a detailed action plan to guide the archdiocese in the coming years and decades to keep Catholic education a smart choice for families of faith.

St. Anthony students assist Father Pat Guidon during the Blessing of the Animals ceremony. Photo courtesy of St. Anthony.

The committee began its work by inviting input from schools, parishes, and the Catholic community. Parents, teachers, priests, lay people, and others were  invited to complete the survey. The results and the committee’s action plan will be compiled into a single report for Archbishop García-Siller’s consideration and release later this year.

Meanwhile, good things are happening because so many in our city, many of them successful products of a Catholic education, support the system, people who want their children taught the same Catholic values and advanced academics.

That was evident at the annual “Khaki and Plaid” event for Hope for the Future. Only last week,  the archdiocese received a $1 million gift from San Antonio philanthropist Harvey Najim, the founder and chairman of Sirius Computer Solutions. Najim isn’t even a Catholic, but he recognizes the qualities of a Catholic school education, and his generosity will enable many financially challenged families to send their children on scholarship.

Let me tell you more about our school. St. Anthony is located only five minutes north of downtown, amid tree-lined streets in residential Monte Vista. The school was founded in 1907  by the Sisters of the Divine Providence. After operating the school for 80 years and faced with the declining availability of nuns to teach for little or no pay, the Sisters decided to close the  school.

St. Anthony Catholic School. Photo by Iris Dimmick
St. Anthony Catholic School. Photo by Iris Dimmick

That’s when the parents of St. Anthony’s children came together and did what many might consider the impossible. They raised the money to buy the school from the religious order and operate it as an independent, non-profit Catholic school affiliated and accredited by the archdiocese. In 1987, the parents group paid $523,000, much of the debt mortgaged, and ever since St. Anthony has been a parent-driven school.

In 1989, parents from the 50-year-old Katherine Ryan Program (KRP) on the University of the Incarnate Word campus approached St. Anthony about assuming operation of that program to prevent its closure. The St. Anthony board agreed, our facilities were expanded and KRP became part of our community.

St. Anthony is still owned and operated by a school board of knowledgeable, hardworking, and dedicated parents, the majority of whom attended Catholic schools themselves.

Maggie, a kindergarten student, tries out an iPad, an online learning tool. Photo courtesy of St. Anthony.

St. Anthony students come from 61 zip codes in and around San Antonio, including Helotes, Floresville, Natalia, and Poteet.  St. Anthony is one of the last urban Catholic schools in the city, yet it still thrives. Parents volunteer, attend field trips, build booths for the fall festival, grill sausages for the school’s Cowboy breakfast, and serve on numerous committees.

While many urban Catholic schools in San Antonio succumb to falling enrollment rates, St. Anthony continues to grow, thanks to its storied history and location and that incredible parent support. Our dedicated teachers want to teach here and they deliver students a superb education.

During St. Anthony’s January Open House, a young father and his four-year old daughter visited. Informed that it was a family tradition to attend St. Anthony, he registered the girl under his wife’s maiden name and thus gained a good spot on our waiting list.

Many St, Anthony parents work in the downtown area and appreciate the school’s proximity. St. Anthony continues to physically grow with the current addition of a new building expanding the number of middle school classrooms, a second computer lab, an art room, music room, a dining hall and state of the art kitchen.

The St. Anthony community is ethnically diverse, and families come from all income levels. Financial support includes full and partial scholarships to partial tuition, much of it from generous donors and the Hope for the Future campaign.

St. Anthony is more than a thriving inner city Catholic school. St. Anthony is a model for the future, a flourishing standalone school that operates without the support of a Catholic parish.

“St. Anthony will be a model for future Catholic schools,” said Father Pat Guidon, past President of the Oblate School of Theology.

All grade levels use computers. A new state of the art computer lab opens in late spring. Photo courtesy of St. Anthony.

St. Anthony Catholic School  and St. Peter Prince of the Apostles School are members of the “Brainpower Connection” linked to the University of the Incarnate Word,  which provides consultation support, workshops, and the use of its facilities and grounds for major events. Incarnate Word High School and St. Anthony Catholic High School also are part of the “Brainpower Connection,” serving as strong feeder schools for families interested in a Catholic high school environment.

We network and collaborate, a necessary strategy  in today’s education market.

After serving 33 years in a public school district as an administrator, central office personnel, teacher and a learning coach for principals across the state of Texas, I resigned to return to my roots at St. Anthony as the principal.

I attended Catholic schools from kindergarten to 12th grade in the San Antonio area, beginning at St. Anthony in the mid-1960s. My parents worked hard to give their four children a private Catholic education. Even back then, parents sacrificed to send their children to a private school that taught Catholic values and virtues.

Our classrooms lacked air conditioning, but each one was brimming with students. The nuns operated the school and they were the faculty. Today, lay teachers greatly outnumber the nuns, with fewer and fewer women taking vows and entering orders.  In fact, most Catholic schools do not have any nuns teaching classes, but the teachings and the values have not changed.

After serving as an elementary school administrator for 17 years in the public school system, I noticed that students in a private Catholic school held on to their innocence and embraced core values even after the elementary years. Catholic students are kind, gentle, respectful and genuine.

In public schools, teachers work numerous hours and plan school-wide events for the students and families. In Catholic schools, parents are the school planners who go the extra mile after their workday for the sake of their children.

I believe it was the perfect professional time to return to Catholic education. I’m part of a growing community of educators, parents, and others working for a brighter and more prosperous future for the San Antonio Archdiocese of Catholic Schools.

Cynthia Gudowski Luna is the St. Anthony Catholic School principal. Cindy is from San Antonio – born and bred – and enjoys traveling with her family and playing racquetball. Visit the school website to stay connected with their progress. www.stanthonysa.org. You can reach her at cluna@stanthonysa.org or find her on Linkedin.

Related stories on the Rivard Report:

The Uncertain Future of San Antonio’s Inner City Catholic Schools January 2013

Are Three Catholic Universities Too Many for San Antonio? January 2013

OLLU President: ‘The Lake’ is Strong and Strategic January 2013

Advice From an OLLU Student: Ditch the Market, Follow Your Catholic Values January 2013