A school on a mission

Summit + Saint Francis School

Oahu K-12 Schools
Place Manoa
Text Ikaika Hussey
Thread School of the Future

Established in 1924, the mission of Saint Francis School is to provide a “Quality Catholic Education in a Spirit of Joy.” The Christian atmosphere and philosophy of the school is to provide a great moral and spiritual foundation for its students. With its courtyards and open spaces, the quiet and beauty of the campus provides an outstanding environment in which to study. The belief at Saint Francis is that all children are capable of learning and can become self-reliant, contributing members of their church, local communities and global society.

Summit sat down with Saint Francis' Head of School, Sister Joan of Arc Souza, to discuss the mission and values underlying the school's work. Saint Francis is 90 years old and began as a four-year school with 10 girls. After becoming co-educational in 2006, the school now has 532 students, K–12.

The school was inspired by the work of Saint Marianne Cope, a Franciscan nun who came to Molokai in 1888 to minister to Hansen's disease patients at Kalaupapa. When Father Damien himself was diagnosed with the ma'i ho'oka'awale—the separating sickness, as leprosy was called—Saint Marianne cared for him herself.

Saint Francis was established to educate young girls who wanted to enter the Franciscan Order but were needed as nurses and teachers. In 1936, the school moved from its previous Liliha location to Manoa Valley with 10 lay students and four who were studying to become nuns.

The all-girls school was unusual in that, from very early on, it placed a strong emphasis on science, providing labs and equipment for students to use as they studied to become nurses. Since then, the school has worked hard to be accessible to students from all walks of life, working out tuition deals and even trading tuition for repairs, construction and other services from parents.

Summit (S): How does the founding of the school tie in with its mission today?

Joan of Arc Souza (JS): Saint Marianne came to Hawaii at the request of the Hawaiian monarchy, going to Kalaupapa and taking care of people whom the rest of the world considered throwaways—people who had come down with Hansen's disease. She recognized that they are human beings suffering from a disease, and she treated them with the dignity and respect they deserved. This was the sort of attitude Saint Francis advocated when he founded the Franciscan Order.

We take students that, perhaps, other schools might not. We have had students here who have been refugees, students who are homeless, students who have learning difficulties—and we've had success stories with them. Ninety-nine percent of our graduates go on to college. For many of them, that opportunity probably wouldn't exist if it weren't for their experience at Saint Francis. We try very hard to keep our tuition at a level that allows low and middle-income families to send their children to a private, Catholic school.

S: How do you include values of social justice and treating all people as humans in your curriculum?

JS: We expect the students to treat each other with respect and we try to enforce the same idea in the classroom. Yes, you're here to learn the academic material, but you're also here to learn how to be a good human being. We want our students to become the best man, the best woman they can be.

We include a lot of ethics training in our classes as well. For example, when we teach students about the wars that have occurred in the world, we ask them to think beyond the simple facts and figures of the war. We ask them why? Why are there wars, and what could you possibly do to bring wars to an end? We try to raise their awareness and instill critical thinking so that when they are the adults, they will be able to make a difference in the world.

S: Is there an effort to have students get involved in current affairs as well?

JS: For their senior project, students are divided into small groups—two or three students—and they have to examine some social evil in the world. They review it, they present it, and the most important part of their project is that they have to come up with potential solutions to correct the social evil?

S: What are some examples of social evils they've examined?

JS: They've looked at the one-child policy in China and what that does to the family, they've looked at the massacres in Africa, I'm sure they're going to be looking at ISIS and the ebola crisis in Africa. They've looked at the crystal meth epidemic in Hawaii which is still so prevalent. But always, we ask them to think about what they can do as Americans, as community members and as citizens of the world.

S: In terms of your religion department, how are you teaching social justice within the context of a faith?

JS: We're a Catholic school and everyone takes religion. But we encourage those who belong to other religious groups to explain what their church teaches on a given topic. I think what the students are finding out is that we're not so different. It's a pluralistic society. We have to learn to live with each other and respect each other.

We are children of the New Testement. Jesus would not have rejected anyone. He accepted all. And that's what they have to learn to do as well. It's not always easy, when you're 14 or 15, to do that, but that was one of the central teachings of Saint Francis. He saw everybody and everything as his brother and his sister. We actually use the prayer of Saint Francis a lot and part of it is even incorporated into our alma mater.

S: How do you help students with no means to pay for tuition attend school?

JS: We have a lot of students whose parents are working two or three jobs just to be able to pay a portion of their students' tuition. We give parents an opportunity to pay in-kind: if they're in construction, we'll let them fix our sidewalks, or put up a new stone wall or build shelves and other things the school needs in exchange for tuition assistance. It empowers them because suddenly it's about what they can give, rather than what they cannot.

We offer discounted tuition depending on how many students you have enrolled in the school. If you have three kids attending school here already, the fourth one we will actually take for free. So we have many families with multiple kids coming here and that helps keep the families connected to the school and the school connected to them. We have a parent volunteer and two coaches who drive vans from Kapolei to our campus stopping at neighborhoods along the way to pick up students and bring them to school.

S: How is the school able to have such an open approach to tuition and fees? Is there a substantial endowment that is subsidizing the costs?

JS: We do have an endowment, though I don't know if I would call it substantial. It does help though. Some of it comes from the generosity of people who make donations to the school. And then we have some students whose families have no trouble affording tuition. It all balances out.

S: Are there any particular stories you'd like to share about in-need students the school has helped?

JS: Over 60 percent of our student body is on some kind of tuition assistance. We've got two students right now that are homeless. We also have a refugee from Myanmar. We had a refugee from Afghanistan who graduated recently. Her family was Catholic, so they knew they had to get out when the war started. They fled with only the clothes on their backs and ended up here in Hawaii. They had no money whatsoever, but now she's a high school graduate. That is what Saint Francis is all about. Our school reaches out to those who have a real need for education. They have the potential and the drive to go to college, so we take them.

S: One of the big challenges with being homeless and a student is just keeping up. It's hard to study, it's hard even just to get proper sleep. How do you help students who are homeless adjust to school?

JS: We have modular scheduling, which gives students open time during the day to study. So students who might not have computers at home, or a place to study at home have an opportunity to use school time and facilities to keep themselves caught up. We try to supply our homeless students with a laptop, as many of their books as we can, and the uniforms they need.

S: How does going to school with a homeless student impact the other students?

JS: We don't broadcast that a student is homeless, of course, but their friends know about it. I think it helps them to see that, but for the Grace of God, it could be them that's homeless. They learn how to empathize with people in different life situations from their own and how to reach out to another human being. Again, this goes back to Saint Francis and Sister Marianne. We're trying to perpetuate their teachings in Hawaii: to have humility and compassion for those less fortunate than yourself and to see them as your brothers and sisters.


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Ikaika Hussey
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