St. Margaret of Scotland seeks to bolster Shaw neighborhood with school building project

Lisa Johnston |

St. Margaret of Scotland School has launched a $2 million capital campaign to construct a new school building, and already they're almost halfway toward that amount in advanced pledges.

Once completed, this will be the first time in 50 years that a new, standalone Catholic parish school building will be constructed in the city.

Located in the Shaw neighborhood of south St. Louis, St. Margaret of Scotland has maxed out its available space and needs more room to grow. The campaign, called "Faith in Our Future," will raise funds to build a new middle school building on campus, at the corner of Shaw Boulevard and Lawrence Avenue, and replace an aging boiler system in existing school buildings.

A kickoff event was held March 2, during which pastor Father Matthew O'Toole announced that more than $825,000 in advanced pledges already have been raised. Once the school reaches $1 million in pledges, it will approach the Archdiocese of St. Louis to take out a matching interest-bearing loan of $1 million, which will be repaid through additional pledges being sought by the parish.

The reason for that approach, explained Father O'Toole, is because the school needs to have the new building operating by the 2016-17 school year, in anticipation of a projected growth in students. The school currently has 388 students in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade and is projecting an increase in enrollment over the next five years. In the past, most grades have needed one classroom per grade. In the past several years, the school has added a second classroom for several of the younger grades.

Father O'Toole said it's difficult to pinpoint all of the reasons for the growth, but "St. Margaret has been put in tough situations and has made it work. It's running contrary to every preconceived notion that people have about the city," said the priest, who has served at several other parishes in south St. Louis.

Baptismal boom

Among of the major factors for the growth has been in the number of baptisms at the parish. From 2009-2013, there were 185 infant baptisms, which is defined as birth through 7 years old. Those are parishioner baptisms, not people from outside of the parish, said Father O'Toole.

St. Margaret also has not had a funeral from April 2013 through this past January and only four funerals in all of 2013. Because of the increase in parishioner baptisms, school enrollment naturally is increasing. In addition, families from other Catholic parishes are sending their children to the school (53 students in 2013) as well as nonCatholic families (84 in 2013).

"I am seeing an incredible enthusiasm that so many families want to see us not only survive but thrive," Father O'Toole explained. "The response from the (Shaw neighborhood) community has been a powerful vehicle." Young professionals and families with young children could send their children to other schools, but they're purposely choosing St. Margaret, he said.

Terri and John Meredith moved from Kansas City to St. Louis in 1980. When they started looking for a home in the area, they told their real estate agent they wanted to find an intentionally diverse community, preferably in the city. The agent told them there was no such thing, so the Merediths, in their disbelief, started visiting parishes and schools and asking questions. They found St. Margaret.

Terri Meredith started teaching music at the school, while her now-grown children attended there. Over the years, she said she's witnessed a steady rise in enrollment. "Every year we're having to add a classroom, and suddenly you start to run out of room."

"What really hooks people is the community that is there," said Terri Meredith. "There's a very strong family atmosphere, a very welcoming atmosphere for everyone. It's very important at St. Margaret that we evangelize, and in that way, it's one of the reasons why we're maintaining our success and seeing an evangelization within our community."

The intention of diversity

Principal Juliann Hesed was listening one day to a National Public Radio program with a guest who was an expert in distinguishing accents. The expert claimed to be able to tell not only what part of the country a person was from, but also the specific community. He kept correctly guessing callers' locations -- until he got to someone from St. Louis. The caller was calling from the Shaw neighborhood of south St. Louis.

The interaction was an instant reminder of the diversity of the community in which Hesed and her husband, Peter, have lived for more than three decades.

"The diversity and inclusiveness is part and parcel of this community," she said. "For years when (our neighborhood was on its) deathbed, it was the anchor that kept this area from going under."

The neighborhood is composed of a mix of stately brick homes and multi-family flats. In the past year, a mixture of single-family homes, condos and multi-family residential buildings have sold in the Shaw neighborhood, ranging anywhere from about $45,000 for a home in need of rehab, to $425,000. The diversity in racial and socio-economic backgrounds makes itself evident within the makeup of the school.

"It was always intended to be diverse," said Hesed, who's been principal at St. Margaret for eight years, and was a teacher there prior to being principal."It's part of who we are. It's not something we have come to."

Academic, faith excellence

In 2010, St. Margaret was named a National Blue Ribbon School by the U.S. Department of Education. It's one of the highest marks of distinction that a school -- public or nonpublic -- can receive. The school earned the recognition for excellence and has consistently earned high test scores. But Hesed previously told the Review "we do not teach to the test," meaning that the high test scores are the result of the students' education, not the goal.

The school offers two foreign languages, Spanish and Russian, and a community-based art program, called Art @ SMOS, run by volunteers and funded in part by a grant from the Shaw Neighborhood Improvement Association. Last year, the school announced the creation of the Community Alliance for Education, a partnership with four neighborhood organizations, to expand educational opportunities for students and their families.

Hesed stressed that even though the school ranks high in academics, it's the integration of faith that completes the whole picture for families who choose to send their children there.

"We're by no means a select school," she said. "We take the kids and we educate them. But we bind all of that in faith. People are attracted to that even if they are not Catholic. They want their children to be educated in that value system."

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