From the Commons to the Classroom
Graduates Bring a Part of Scranton to Germantown Catholic School
The parallels between Germantown’s DePaul Catholic School and the 40-foot mural – titled “St. Vincent’s Orchard,” recently completed on the school’s facade – run thicker than a few coats of paint.
In their own ways, the school and the mural are giving light to an area in desperate need.
In 2003, DePaul, then known as St. Martin DePorres, was in peril. At that time, the school’s enrollment had dwindled to nearly 180 students – a dangerously low number, according to Vice Principal Steve Janczewski. If the K-8 school closed, it would leave its Northwest Philadelphia neighborhood – an area rich in historic sites, but since overcome with urban strife– with no Catholic schools.
Through what Janczewski calls “counter-intuitive” measures, DePaul didn’t cut budgets but rather lowered class sizes, hired additional faculty, and added programs, such as Spanish, art and computer science.
Nearly a decade later, the decision to make a DePaul education distinctive seems to be an A-plus. DePaul opens the 2012-13 school year with 320 students, 30 faculty members and 18 homerooms, nearly double previous years’ totals.
“That’s a very visible sign that this isn’t a school that’s dying, it’s a school that’s growing,” says Janczewski.
Just as muralist Brother Mark Edler, a professor at DePaul University in Chicago, brightened the Catholic school’s exterior, “interjecting life and light into the neighborhood,” DePaul has done the same for the Philadelphia suburb.
For any school, success begins in the classroom. The mural is a metaphor for the life flourishing inside the building’s walls. This success is largely attributed to the school’s faculty, which has a distinctive University of Scranton lean. How distinctive? Of the school’s 30 faculty members, 12 are Scranton graduates, including two from the class of 2012.
In recent years, DePaul has employed nearly 20 Scranton alumni, Janczewski explains, adding, “They have played a big role in our success as a school.”
Bringing the Commons to Northwest Philadelphia
The arrival of Scranton graduates at DePaul can be traced back to Steve Clark ’06.
An English and philosophy major at Scranton, Clark sought an English teaching position following graduation, though his options were limited. Without a teaching certificate, he couldn’t teach in public schools. Plus, he wanted a position that was more than a job and a paycheck.
Having worked with Janczewski for years at Camp Overbook, a day camp for inner city students in southeastern Pennsylvania, Clark jumped at an open position at DePaul. He started as a theology class teacher, and it provided a great opportunity for him to get his feet wet in the classroom.
“It didn’t start as a ‘Scranton Annex,’” laughs Clark, who teaches writing to middle schoolers now. “It started with me, and I would talk to people and tell them what I was doing and you could tell they were interested. A lot of us at Scranton, we were passionate about finding something that we could do that would make a difference. We want to do something valuable. I think a lot of Scranton graduates were looking for that.”
The sense of community at the school was a great selling point, and very reminiscent of that of Scranton. Clark recruited several other alums from his college, including his twin brother, Mike ’06, to come work at the school.
At one time or another, the following Royals have worked at DePaul: Pat McKenzie ’06, Dan Kiers ’06, Mike Montgomery ’06, Theresa Evans ’06, Steve Fromhold ’06, Jennifer Guinto Kiers ’04, Jacqueline Colley ’08, G’09, Colleen McKenzie ’08, Laura Strubeck ’08, Margaret Berry ’06 and John (Bud) Heppler ’06. Christina Lennon ’12 and Grace Manero ’12 are beginning their first year this fall.
“We are really passionate about the school and making it better,” Steve Clark says. “Even people who leave, they have a hard time leaving. They want to stay involved in the school. It’s not just a job for us. It’s a big part of our lives. We were all looking for something like Scranton after we graduated, and this school, to a large extent, offered it to us.”
Though when you are passionate about a topic, it’s hard to leave it at work.
“Working with your friends can definitely have its advantages and disadvantages,” says Dan Kiers. “It seems like when we are out together, we only talk about work. But it has advantages because you always have someone to talk to or vent to, or share a good story with.”
Overcoming Obstacles, Providing a ‘Safe Haven’
There are parts of Germantown that are struggling with the same obstacles facing many areas of the country: poverty, broken homes and violence.
In fact, weeks before the school year began, the Germantown area was still reeling from a shooting across the street from DePaul’s doors. This is not an everyday occurrence by any means, but it still happened, Janczewski explains.
In the classroom, Kiers notices little things, like the fact that parent involvement is low. Often times, students won’t know what phone number to reach their parents because numbers and addresses are always changing.
“These challenges are visible, and you work through them,” says Kiers, who teaches fifth-grade science and language arts.
Steve Fromhold understands that a few blocks from school his students cross into some “rough territory.” “You hear some terrible stories that involve our kids, and a lot of them aren’t in the best situations,” he says.
The science teacher explains his students’ school experience is vastly different than what he had as a child. “I can only really compare it to my grade school days, and it’s nothing like it. I went to school in the suburbs and everything was nice and new. For our students at DePaul, the school has to be a safe haven for them.”
DePaul faces these challenges head on with a full-time counselor and initiatives, such as their extended day program that give students a positive place to stay. “The effects of living in the neighborhood are there and, instead of ignoring it, we want to face it right on,” Janczewski says.
Colleen McKenzie, a Philadelphia native, says DePaul removes its students from the hardships they might encounter elsewhere.
“Students see our school and think of it as a safe place for them in chaos,” the third-grade teacher explains. “It’s not always chaos, but it can be at times.”
Kiers, whose wife, Jennifer Guinto Kiers, also works at DePaul, has made a concerted effort to make his classroom a welcoming place. “I try to give my classroom a sense of community. That’s what Scranton is,” he says. “The spiritual values and lessons I’ve learned at Scranton I try to bring to the DePaul community.”
The Pursuit of Magis
According to Janczewski, at times the DePaul administrators have had to do their due diligence and ask if having all these faculty members from one college was a positive. “But you know, we realize they have been great for us. We have had great experiences with every single Scranton person we have brought in,” he says.
“Being a Catholic school, it was really important to us to find people who think of this career as a calling, who are mission-driven people, and trying to do something larger than themselves,” Janczewski says. “Our Scranton graduates have gone above and beyond. This is great work, but it’s hard work. It’s challenging. They don’t get paid a whole lot. But there’s a community here. And that’s something that the group of Scranton brings.”
Both Fromhold and Clark credit the University for building this inherent desire to do more. “I think the idea of magis – without necessarily naming it – comes across very clear in Scranton graduates. They are always trying to get better,” Clark says.
Adds Fromhold, “We’re always looking to see how we can improve situations. It is the magis way of life. What more can we do? How can we better help our kids and the situations they are in? Where can we go, and how can we get there?”
McKenzie explains Scranton instilled a sense that graduates must take what they’ve learned and “set the world on fire.” “I feel like when I graduated, I was a little confused and I was working in a job that I wasn’t really happy at,” she says. “Teaching at DePaul, I feel I am fulfilled now. For me, this is the perfect job.”
Sometimes, to set the world on fire, you must stop, set up roots, and provide light for others where it is most needed.
After trying his hand at accounting, Steve Fromhold ’06 realized his career path wasn’t leading him where he wanted to go. Today, Fromhold is one of a dozen Scranton graduates who found “more than a job” at DePaul Catholic School.
‘I Wanted to Do Something More’
While many of the Scranton contingent at DePaul have always been called to education, others have taken a more scenic route, including Steve Fromhold ’06.
A business major at Scranton, Fromhold was 18 months on the job as an accountant when he conducted what he calls a “little self-evaluation.”
“I was just out of college, and not much was asked of me back then,” he recalls. “I was working until 5 p.m. and doing all types of activities with friends. I even had Flyers season tickets. The pay was good and the lifestyle that goes with that paycheck was nice.”
Considering this career trajectory however, Fromhold was left feeling unfulfilled.
“I always got a little bit of an empty sense that my job didn’t really mean anything,” he says. “What is the big deal with these financial statements and what the numbers are? I wanted to do something more.”
Adds Steve Clark ’06, “He wasn’t finding meaning in being an accountant. He wanted to do something where he was connecting with people – helping people and using his gifts to help others.”
So Fromhold quit, taking a volunteer position at Camp Overbook, a day camp for inner city kids. He enjoyed the experience so much he – on the advice of Clark – sought an open position at DePaul, and he landed the job.
“I accidentally fell into a great situation,” says Fromhold, who taught religion to sixth- and seventh-graders. “It wasn’t exactly baptism by fire, but I quit accounting in May, and by September I had my own classroom. It was amazing how my life changed so fast.”
Looking back, Fromhold says the risk he took paid off. Four years later, he teaches science to middle schoolers, which wasn’t on his previous career path, but definitely worth the detour.
“I make about half as much now as I did when I was accountant,” he estimates. “But my parents and everyone have been really understanding about it. They respect the choice that I’ve made, and they can see that my heart is in it.”