The excitement of a red-carpet welcome, a modern school facility, a spacious campus and – perhaps most importantly – reuniting with friends and teachers outshined the talk of masks and temperature-taking at St. Joan of Arc School in Hershey as students embarked on a new school year Aug. 31.
St. Joan’s moved from its historic yet outgrown quarters on Areba Avenue to an 110,000-square-foot building two miles away on Sand Hill Road, after purchasing the former Lancaster Mennonite Hershey campus in December of 2019.
The new site offers students a wide range of enhancements to their faith-based education, said Sister Eileen McGowan, DM, principal. At the top of the list is space to accommodate their numbers, which have seen continued growth over the past several years.
“When we had our Middle States visit and accreditation in 2015, we knew that our greatest need was more space,” she said.
At that time, classrooms were at capacity, and the pre-schoolers were being taught on the school stage.
With an influx of sixth-graders anticipated for the 2020-2021 school year, officials knew they had to act; the Areba Avenue school didn’t have space to accommodate a needed second class.
“We had decided we were going to put an addition on to the building, and the plans were ready for it, and then Lancaster Mennonite School went up for sale,” Sister Eileen said. “We discovered that building a new addition plus renovating the school would cost more than actually buying Lancaster Mennonite.”
St. Joan’s purchased the 36-acre campus for $5 million. The cost was less than the $8.5 million needed to renovate the school on Areba Avenue, according to a letter sent by Father Al Sceski, pastor, to parishioners.
The new school is four times larger than the previous building, which had been St. Joan’s home since 1948.
“There is so much that we can give our kids here,” Sister Eileen said. “We have larger classrooms that are bright and cheery, with geothermal heating and air conditioning. We have enhanced security, and a health room and IT room in our office suites. There’s a spacious auditorium, gym, a cafeteria, and many extra rooms that teachers can use for an activity. Outside in our green space, we have soccer fields, space for volleyball and a playground. It’s a great atmosphere for our kids.”
The school has three stories; the third floor is unfinished, but there are plans to establish classrooms for the middle school as well as a 500-seat chapel for weekly Mass. In the meantime, to adhere to social-distancing guidelines, one class each week will attend Mass in-person in the school cafeteria while the liturgy is livestreamed to all classrooms.
“Our enrollment increased from 356 to about 400 this year,” Sister Eileen said. “We could take even more students, but with social distancing we have limited the number in each classroom.”
“If we were in our former school on Areba Avenue, we wouldn’t be able to accommodate the social distancing that we’re currently doing,” she said.
As students arrived for the start of a new year on Aug. 31, they were greeted with a red carpet welcome. To help facilitate smaller group tours of the new building and acclimating students to their new surroundings, the student body staggered during the first week. Going forward, students will have a regular five-day school week.
“Our faculty and staff are 100 percent invested in the health and safety of themselves and the students,” Sister Eileen said. Temperatures are taken at the start of the school day, with mandatory masks and social distancing.
“Custodial staff has been busy cleaning. Everyone deserves a medal for their help and dedication, including the families who helped us move,” she said. “I can’t give enough gratitude to everyone. We have a great community.”
“We have 80 new families we’re welcoming into our family at St. Joan’s, and everyone is equally excited. We’re ready to get this school year underway,” she said.
For more information about St. Joan of Arc School, visit http://school.stjoanhershey.org/ or call 717-533-2854.
(Photos by Chris Heisey, The Catholic Witness.)
By Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness