Catholic Sentinel photo by Ed Langlois
Eighth grader Elizabeth Friesen helps Jack Trapp and Ali Oliveira sing during Mass.
Catholic Sentinel photo by Ed Langlois
Eighth grader Elizabeth Friesen helps Jack Trapp and Ali Oliveira sing during Mass.
SHERWOOD — Students who entered Oregon's newest Catholic school as kindergartners in 2004 are about to graduate. Though not everyone at St. Francis Parish favored the $2 million building project then, this class makes a good case that it was worthwhile.

"We can say of them, 'These kids are a product of St. Francis School,'" says Lori Haugsten, who has taught at St. Francis since it opened and now is the eighth grade homeroom teacher. "They are just a fabulous class."

Of the 17 eighth graders, most will go to Valley Catholic. Two will attend Jesuit and one apiece will go to Central Catholic and Blanchet. Others are bound for Sherwood and Tualatin high schools. Some favor drama and choir, others computers and robots. A handful are athletes. About half are involved in student government. Many do it all. The entire group is community-minded.    

"What amazes me about these eighth graders is their focus on giving back," says Kimberly Fadden, principal of St. Francis.

The class, on its own, decided to don sturdy old clothes and wade into surrounding thickets to retrieve playground balls that have gone astray. Eighth graders also deliver milk to the lunchroom, manage recess equipment and go on weekly visits to a nearby retirement center.  

"This is their school and they feel a great sense of responsibility," Fadden says, explaining that seeing beyond oneself is precisely what she hopes for in graduates.

Many Catholics interpreted the opening of St. Francis School nine years ago as a sign that their church's ministries can abide in tough times. Classes began just months after the Archdiocese of Portland entered bankruptcy. "It has been a source of confidence for all of us,” Catholic schools Superintendent Robert Mizia said at the time.

Parents were excited that their quickly growing suburb had a school that mixed faith and academics — and had small classes. St. Francis opened with 140 students. It now enrolls more than 190, but still has classes much smaller than local public schools.

Ten of the eighth graders have been at St. Francis since it opened. Over the years, the class has had highs and lows. Home life has been a struggle for some. But the students always respected each other and welcomed new classmates warmly. Now, they're ending on a strong note.

They fondly recall the day at Outdoor School when one of them fell into the pond. They laugh hard when they remember how the legs of a lunch table gave way and dishes cascaded onto the floor. The call to mind playing "Star Wars" tag at recess and the semester when the girls begged two of the boys to join an a cappella choir.

The common history binds these students, who say they all at once feel ready to move on and wistful to leave.   

"The class has gotten more funny," says Suzie Geisler, who will attend Blanchet next year. "We've gotten comfortable with each other, like family."

"We've always been the same kind of happy," says Joe Engstrom, who will be a Valley Catholic freshman in the fall. "We all treat each other pretty well." Joe recalls the first day of kindergarten in 2004, when his father dropped him off and he made friends quickly. He also was shown to a square on the carpet where he was to sit during story time. That square is still there.

Joey Biever arrived in fourth grade and felt a relieving sense of welcome. He'd been bullied at his former school in Florida. On top of that, the academics at St. Francis seemed more advanced, which inspired him. Joey also feels spurred on by the education in virtue. "You see someone get a certificate for kindness and you think, 'Maybe I should be more kind," he says.

Faith is the infrastructure of the eighth grade day. At weekly Mass, the elder students sit with kindergartners and teach the ways of respectful worship.

Father Ysrael Bien, administrator of the parish, gave a homily on kindness at a recent school Mass. That affirmed the project in which students focus on one virtue per month. Those who exemplify virtues get called up after Mass to receive congratulations, squirming and smiling.

In religion class, eighth graders are learing about church history, plus family life and relationships. Sixteen of the 17 are Catholic and one is Lutheran. In a bit of religious good humor at a recent class retreat, the lone Protestant made a pretense of trying to convince his Catholic schoomates that he worships a moon deity.  

The eighth graders, whatever their faith, pray before lunch and even before gym class. They just plain participate.  

"Some eighth graders I've taught in the past think they're beyond this class, but not them," says Jennifer Highberger, the P.E. teacher. As Highberger speaks, the eighth graders joyfully run three laps to warm up before playing volleyball.

Starting a new school was more difficult than most adults here imagined. Gathering supplies, forming policy and creating tradition all took time. Some families left in those formative years. But now, the school is nicely established, say teachers and parents, pointing to the class of 2013 as proof.

"They are good students who are serious about their studies," says Vicky Smith, who knows the class in two ways. She is the mother of an eighth grader and also has been the middle school math teacher since St. Francis opened.

"They are very close, and very supportive of each other's endeavors," Smith explains. "They are not perfect. They have had kid issues. But they have grown up together."  

After the hard work and uncertainty when the school opened, it has become what Smith dreamed — stable and thriving.

"It's a wonderful extension of the parish," she says. "It pulled families together and brought a great sense of community." Students not only serve at the altar, but are members of the social action committee and other parish groups.

Kim Mooers, first grade aide and mother of an eighth grader, says she was frightened to start a new school in 2004, but the result has exceeded expectations.

"This group of kids came into a school that was new and they became like siblings," Mooers says. "They drove each other to be better."