By NANCY CZABALA
AIKEN — In his first year as principal, Keith Darr is striving to maintain the long-standing tradition of excellence at St. Mary Help of Christians. He described the school as having a strong sense of peace and a firm dedication from students and teachers.
Very active and well-known in the community of Aiken, the school involves students in many of the town’s functions. They participate in the Habitat for Humanity, the Special Olympics and ACTS, a community-wide project that collects food for shelters and food pantries. Darr noted that, while participating in these projects, students are putting the Catholic belief to work in lending their time and talents in helping others.
Teachers and parent volunteers also maintain a strong belief in the faith and keep high standards in Catholic education by incorporating religious practices in an environment of academic excellence. The school endeavors to assist parents in educating students in the love and knowledge of God while at the same time providing them with the best academic opportunities possible. The students have proven their academic excellence by scoring above average in every section of the Iowa Test of Basic Skills.
Computers are present in almost every classroom, with computer classes beginning in third grade. Accelerated classes — French and algebra — are also offered. The school has earned an accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, which allows students in the appointed classes to gain high school credit.
The academic program is enriched through the participation in the Science Fair, Math Counts, Model U.N. program, Computer Quiz Bowl, Spelling Bee and art and essay contests. Students actively take part in the Student Council program, conducting school-wide activities, and junior high students have the opportunity to participate in the National Junior Beta Club, an academic and service organization.
Extracurricular activities also help students put their creativity and talent to work. The student body and faculty put on a sold out talent show this January. The youth choir regularly sings at Mass and holds a Christmas performance each year. Students also participate in the sports program, first on parish teams and then in junior high on interscholastic teams.
The Booster Club holds pancake breakfasts and dances to raise money in support of the school’s booming sports program. The junior high girls’ team recently won the CSRA Independent Schools League tournament, and parents rallied for St. Mary’s to host the state basketball championship this year. Parents lend their time in heading up the sports program, leading practices and coaching teams.
The Parent Teacher Organization supports the school in its athletics program, fund raisers, daily at school and in programs such as the Extended Care Program. As the school has an early drop off policy for working parents, students are also cared for after school in the Extended Care Program. About 45 students stay after school to 6 p.m. They are given a snack and the opportunity to go to study hall or play outside with friends. An after school computer class is offered and some students even participate in taking piano lessons.
Annual fund raisers, involving the whole community, are produced by parents. An Art Auction is held at which originals, prints and sculptures are sold at prices ranging from $5 to $500. The Chocolate Festival offers a recipe contest, silent auction of chocolate goodies and games for children. A golf tournament and walk-a-thon are also organized for students and the residents of Aiken.
Teachers involve students in on-going projects throughout the year. The second grade religion class, during Vocations Week, wrote to bishops across the United States, asking what being a bishop meant to them. To their request, the class received many personal responses from the bishops. Kindergartners sold Earth Foundation T-shirts, while teachers created an awareness of environmental issues. With proceeds thus far, the school has adopted six acres of rain forest.
With parent participation the school was hooked up with NASA weather scientists. Students were able to have an open dialogue with the scientists about the effects of El Nino. Parent volunteers working with the Advisory School Board have wired classrooms throughout the school with a network program on which students give weekly updates, “SMS News,” on school activities.
Father Thomas Evatt, pastor at St. Mary Help of Christians Parish, is actively involved in school activities, including weekly Mass. Father Edward Fitzgerald, parochial vicar, also gets involved in Mass and joins students in programs such as Jump Rope for Heart. The parish recently broke ground for a $2.5 million life center that includes a new building for kindergarten classes and a gym that the school will use for sports.
Classes came together recently to hold a Winter Olympics Event. Eighth graders took on the responsibility and challenge of directing each activity, and helping the younger kids compete in the modified games. The students, faculty and community work as a family on an on-going basis, continuing to build a strong Christian atmosphere.