St. Mary Help of Christians school board wins award

CHARLESTON — St. Mary Help of Christians School in Aiken has the type of school board others strive to emulate.

Described as efficient and committed, the group received the National Catholic Educational Association Outstanding Board Award on Feb. 17. They are one of only nine boards in the country to receive the award.

Peggy Wertz, school principal and board member, said they were encouraged to apply by Sister Julia Hutchison, diocesan superintendent of education.

In the course of her duties, Sister Julia travels across the state visiting schools and attending their meetings. She complimented St. Mary’s board on its outstanding efficiency.

Wertz said the application was a long process that involved a description of the community and the makeup of the board, along with five characteristics that make the group award-worthy.

No. 1 on the list was the fact that all of their decisions are guided by God, she said.

She noted that the two priests from St. Mary Help of Christian Church, Fathers James L. LeBlanc and Jeffrey Kirby, are always at the meetings.

“We have very committed people,” she said.   

Some of their winning attributes included the “Come to Class, Come to Mass” initiative, which encourages families to come to Mass and follow the tenets of the Catholic faith. The board has also improved technology at the school and added Spanish classes for all grades.

But not all of their decisions are easy or popular, Wertz said. When parents approached the board with concerns about their 11-year-olds attending overnight field trips with 12- and 13-year-old students, the board re-examined their policy. The sixth-graders were unhappy when the board decided to limit the trips to just the seventh and eighth grade, but Wertz said it was the right decision based on maturity levels and finances.

Wertz was a student at St. Mary Help of Christians and has been principal for four years.

“We couldn’t ask for a better principal,” Father Kirby said. “It’s a great board. I think its strong points are delegation and empowerment.”

Wertz said they usually manage to keep their meetings to an hour or so by doing detail work in subcommittees and having members read reports ahead of time.

The award acknowledges outstanding work, encourages excellence, and provides ideas and best practices for other governance groups. St. Mary will be honored at a luncheon on April 15 during the NCEA Convention in Anaheim, Calif.

“They were thrilled,” Wertz said of all the members. “They were very proud. I think they would all love to go to Anaheim.”

The board includes: Father LeBlanc, pastor of St. Mary Help of Christians Church; Father Kirby, parochial vicar of the church; Wertz, school principal; Dr. Wayne Frei, advisory school board chair; and board members Michele Bullington, Carrie Morgan, Bette Ross, Jim Driscoll, Mickey Anaclerio, Donna Pierce, Mike Serrato, Omar Cardona, Monique Rabin, Laura Webster, Carol Sherburne, Rosemarie Adams and Laurie Ulmer.

St. Mary Help of Christians School dates back to 1900, when it was established under the name St. Angela Academy by Ursuline nuns as a boarding school for wealthy young ladies.

The Sisters of Charity of Our Lady of Mercy from Charleston assumed operation of the school from 1906 to 1997.  In 1950, the school was divided in two, with St. Mary Help of Christians designated as the grammar school and St. Angela the high school.

There are 7,498 Catholic schools, according to the NCEA Web site. In the 2006-2007 academic year, 36 new schools opened and 212 closed or consolidated.