Different buildings, one faith: Students thriving in Catholic education

Saturday, March 07, 2020 - Updated: 2:45 pm

By Bob De Witt Correspondent

Lea Kirchner remembers the sad announcement last summer that their parish elementary school was closing. Her son, Christopher, had grown up there, made many friends and was just one year from graduation. She was deeply involved in fundraising and marketing the school.

But Lea and her husband, Dale Kirchner, had already made an important decision — to keep their son in Catholic education to continue to learn “the same values that we’re teaching in our home,” Lea said.

Today, joined by 37 other students from the former St. Sylvester School in Brentwood, Christopher is thriving at St. Elizabeth of Hungary School in Pleasant Hills. An honors student, he runs cross country and track, and plays clarinet in the school band. He also has many new friends.

“The transition initially for both of us was a little bit hard,” Lea said in an interview for the diocesan radio program “Catholic Education Plus.” “Christopher was leaving friends … teachers who he had been comfortable with, and we were going into the unknown.”

“I was nervous at first,” Christopher said. “But I started making new friends and was welcomed by the teachers here.”

St. Elizabeth Principal Leslie Krueger has held two open houses for families of nearby schools closing as part of the diocese’s strategic regionalization of parish elementary schools.

“There is pain,” she said. “We wanted to invite them to our community. We are in different buildings, but we are one faith and all connected.”

“St. Elizabeth has welcomed us with open arms and helping hands,” Lea said.

Regionalization is part of a long-term effort to strengthen Catholic education in the diocese by continuing to provide spiritually vibrant, academically excellent and financially stable elementary schools that families can afford.

Under the new model, elementary schools in a region are supported by multiple parishes and a regional governing board of priests and lay leaders that provide expertise and oversight. Every parish and grouping is represented whether or not there is a school on its property, allowing each to have a voice and be invested in the mission of Catholic schools.

St. Sylvester students have benefited from being part of a larger school with more academic and extracurricular resources and service opportunities. St. Elizabeth School is strengthened by increased enrollment. Christopher also has benefited from the change, even though he’ll be at St. Elizabeth for just one year.

“He’s had to become a little more organized, learn how to adapt to new teachers, new routines, to new requirements,” Lea said, “everything that’s going to make him a more successful student.”

Christopher also has remained active at St. Sylvester Parish as an altar server and volunteers at the annual parish festival. He’s looking forward to continuing his journey in Catholic education this fall at Seton LaSalle High School.

“He’s learning the importance of his faith,” his mom said, “and having Christ be at the center of his school day.”

“Catholic Education Plus,” hosted by Father Tom Burke, airs Sundays at 6:30 a.m. on KDKA-AM 1020. The episode with Lea Kirchner and Leslie Krueger will air March 15. Podcasts of the show are available at https://kdkaradio.radio.com/media/podcast/catholic-education-plus.

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