St. Martin de Porres School begins new year of independence

COLUMBIA — Two years ago St. Martin De Porres School became a diocesan school, rather than a parish school. That is, the diocesan Catholic Schools Office oversees decisions made on behalf of the school. The purpose is to enable the school to become financially stable again.

Two years ago the school was struggling to remain operational, and the diocese stepped in. It has given the school additional funding each year to make ends meet. But the school, with the help of dedicated parents and staff, has rebounded. This year, it will not receive additional funds from the diocese.

“In 2005, they will be a parish school again,” said Sister Canice Adams, director of the Catholic Schools Office.

At that time, the decision-making will be re-established at the parish level.

While St. Martin de Porres School answers directly to the diocese, Principal Sandra Leatherwood has made sure to include the pastor and parish council in the life of the school.

“Becoming a diocesan school did not mean that I cut ties with the parish,” she said. “It is important to this school after 66 years to keep that connection.”

To turn things around, the school started with a zero-base budget. Rather than build on the previous year’s budget, they start fresh each year based on the current school year’s enrollment. They tally the projected revenue for the year and use this number to create their budget. In doing this, they assure that funds are being tightly allocated and wisely distributed.

“We had to look at ourselves and streamline in a lot of areas. Sometimes you have to go back to the basics and make sure they are strong,” Leatherwood said.

One difficult aspect to the process was cutting back on staff. Because the school’s enrollment had dropped, it could only keep enough staff to accommodate the registered students.

The school cut back on its arts programs and focused on strengthening the core curriculum. Teachers also took over doing their own physical education class. They focused on trimming classes without losing the integrity of the academic program.

“One of the backbones was a dedicated faculty and staff. They put forth 200 percent; where we could not afford to get things, they were creative,” Leatherwood said.

Three years ago, the school had to close its sixth grade. It was a hard decision, but a necessary one that Leatherwood came to see as God’s plan. The sixth-grade classroom was used as a multipurpose room for music and a makeshift science lab. They also used this cutback as a way to strengthen the fifth grade.

Now, through a grant from the Sisters of Charity Foundation of South Carolina, the school’s new, modern science lab made its debut this week.

“God’s plan three years ago was to provide a room for this to happen now,” the principal said.

Three years ago, the enrollment was around 100. As the new school season started, enrollment was at 125 with an anticipated increase as the school year gets underway.

“Parents see that we are growing strong,” Leatherwood said. “They like what they see. We have dedicated teachers, a strong academic program and an environment where their children will be taken care of. They also know we teach religion and it’s a place where their children can pray in the classroom.”

While the future of the school is looking up, Leatherwood knows the challenges will continue. She said that while support and enrollment increase, the growing need of parents does as well. The school provides tuition assistance when they can.

“We depend on God to provide it,” she said. “He doesn’t send us kids that we don’t need to have. Every child has a reason for being here.”