St. Margaret of Scotland School didn’t set out to build the first new Catholic parish school building in St. Louis in 50 years. It just ran out of classrooms.
“We’re so crowded right now I always say don’t try and stretch because there’s not room,” St. Margaret Principal Juliann DePalma Hesed said. “Every corner of our building is used. Our cafeteria is our cafeteria but it is used eight different times (a week) for classes that don’t have a classroom.”
According to Hesed, the school began seeing growth in the early 2000s after decades of serving 230 - 260 students.
“Without any closing of another Catholic school we began to see our preschool become very popular,” she explained, noting that the parish has one of the first Montessori schools in the city.
As the students became older, the school began adding a classroom per grade until enrollment grew to more than 400 students. Beginning next year, every grade will have two classes.
To accommodate all of those extra classes, construction is underway for a new middle school building for the Shaw neighborhood parish. It will have six classrooms, a science lab and a breakout area, and is scheduled to be complete in time for the new school year in August.
“The intention is not to take more students, the intention is not to become the Mega School, absolutely the intention is not to swallow up any other school,” Hesed said. “Our intention is simply to be able to serve our population. Next year we’ll have two 8th grade homerooms and that’s it. That will be our growth. There’s no more room to grow any bigger than that.”
St. Louis Archbishop Robert Carlson led a ceremonial groundbreaking for the building Sunday at St. Margaret of Scotland Catholic Church. The event was moved from the school grounds to inside the church due to the snowy weather.
According to the archdiocese, the new building will be the first new parish school building in the city in about 50 years. There have been additions to buildings since then but not stand-alone structures, said Archdiocesan Superintendent of Education Kurt Nelson.
“There’s tremendous excitement not only for this parish, but for the whole city. It’s a great time for Catholic education in general. So we’re all very, very pleased,” Nelson said.
He credits the growth to the school’s neighborhood outreach, academic excellence (it was named a Blue Ribbon School in 2010) and its “solid spiritual formation.”
“I think we’re kind of on the cusp of a renaissance of Catholic education,” Nelson added. “St. Margaret is kind of a symbol of that new breath in Catholic education.”
Declining enrollment has caused several Catholic schools in the St. Louis area to close in recent years. The St. Louis Archdiocese closed five elementary schools just last year.
Hesed said St. Margaret also struggled with declining enrollment in the 1970s, after the parish was divided in two by I-44.
“It was a time of fleeing out to the county and our parish saw a real drop in population,” she said. “My husband and I were parishioners then. We worried that we would get a call from the archbishop saying ‘sorry, you’re too small. Close your doors.’ ”
“But we are a passionate parish,” Hesed added. “We are a parish of dedicated, hardworking, innovative people and everybody went to work.”
Hesed said the parish worked to build the Shaw neighborhood up and today the parish is full of families. She sees St. Margaret and Shaw as part of an area of excitement and growth that extends out to Forest Park and said that the growth of the parish school in part echoes the growing population of the surrounding neighborhoods.
She also said the school is dedicated to being open to newcomers.
“We are welcoming to a diversity of families. We don’t ask questions about your background, where you come from, where do you work. Our question is do you want your child to learn in a faith-based school. And when their answer is yes we say, hey, we want to be that school for you.”
Follow Camille Phillips on Twitter: @cmpcamille.