CHAMPAIGN - Holy Cross School has been educating children for 90 years, and current kindergartner Spencer Hays caught onto the system right away.
"I have a book, 'A Mouse in the House,' and now I can read it!" said Spencer one recent snowy day when he and his classmates were exploring programs in the school's computer laboratory.
"I like school because it has everything I need to play with," he said.
Holy Cross, which started on the second floor of Champaign's new Catholic church in 1913, will mark its anniversary with a reception at the school from 1 to 4 p.m. Sunday. Principal Rose Costello has collected pictures and other memories about the school for weeks, and they'll be posted in the halls and gymnasium so visitors can see them and share their own thoughts.
The school's 400 students and about 35 staff members are also making memories for the open house and anniversary by creating timelines on the walls of the school's halls.
"Each class is in charge of a decade, and they do research and make displays of what's important about it," said Costello, gesturing to one display featuring a poodle skirt, a picture of Elvis and other items from the 1950s.
Holy Cross built a new school in 1953, an addition in 1989 and made more improvements in 1998 to accommodate the student population, which has remained relatively stable since Costello, who's taught at the school since 1976, became principal four years ago.
"Our focus is on creating students who know their faith who can be of service to the community and to each other," she said.
No nuns teach at the school now.
"Sister Kathleen Mitchell, who was principal before me, was the last nun in the school, and that's a shame because the kids have lost the opportunity to know the sisters," Costello said, adding that Holy Cross priests Msgr. Albert Hallin and associate pastor Rev. John Cyr regularly spend time at the school with the students.
The school's library contains more than 7,000 books, and other amenities include a computer laboratory, full-time art teachers, a band and sports program for students in grades five through eight and a music program for all students. Seventh- and eighth-graders can also study Spanish and algebra.
This year, the school's doing a production of "Annie," and more than 100 children will likely participate, Costello said.
"We could use more space," she said. "I'd love to have a science lab and music area, but we're not planning for that yet although the economy's had little effect on us. People continue to be generous. It's humbling that people continue to trust us, to send us their children. That's special to me and to all the teachers here."
"I love the school," said Pat Grider, a kindergarten teacher. "My children went to school here and the youngest is now in eighth grade. My kindergarten students are learning, but they're kindergartners and things change from minute to minute. But we have high expectations, and they rise to them."
Holy Cross teachers aren't paid as well as area public school teachers, but Costello said a parishwide fund drive has helped augment them.
She figures Holy Cross teachers make about 80 percent of the averaged salaries of area schools.
"The atmosphere here is nice," Costello said. "It's more like a family. We've been through a lot, and we've supported each other emotionally and financially. Many of our teachers have been here a long time, but we have a nice blend of new teachers too."
Holy Cross students also come from St. Patrick's Urbana parish and St. Mary's Champaign parish. A second Catholic elementary school, St. Matthew Catholic School, was formed from Holy Cross in 1965, and it educates children from that southwest Champaign parish.
Costello said about 12 percent of Holy Cross' students are not Catholic.
As part of the anniversary celebration and also to mark Catholic Schools Week this week, Holy Cross teachers asked students to write essays about what their school experience means to them or about what it meant to their parents if they also attended the school.
A.J. Wilson, a fifth-grader, interviewed his father about his Holy Cross experiences, dutifully recorded them, and like all the students who wrote essays, posted the result on his locker.
"My father attended Holy Cross from 1965 to 1973," A.J. wrote. "My dad tells me some of the nuns were kind of mean. Two of his favorites were Sister Eleanor and Sister Joan, the Hippie Nun."
"Sometimes the teachers would pull your hair or tug your ear," he continued, back to the original subject. "Some of his favorite memories are the lifelong memories that started at Holy Cross."
Michael Walker, also a fifth-grader, focused his essay on the basics.
"I can make a difference in the world by getting a good education at Holy Cross," said Michael, who wrote later that he wants to be a doctor.
"I will go to high school and college to help dogs, cats and all animals, to be a vet," wrote Katie Swindle, of her ambitious life plan, adding that she will also "do fund raising ... pray for people ... and fight for my rights and stop bad things."
Jordyn Koerner said what she learns at school helps her with relationships at home.
"Holy Cross helps me follow Jesus when I am being mean to my brothers," she wrote.
"The last thing I like about Holy Cross is that I have really good friends," wrote Abby Wiegand, who's also in fifth grade. "They are there for you when you need them."
Deborah Kunkel and Lorianne Miller, both eighth-graders, say they're planning to continue their high school education at the High School of St. Thomas More and perhaps to university because the Catholic school experience so far has been so positive.
"There are uniforms, but I think that's a better idea because there are no fights about what you're wearing," said Lorianne, a Champaign resident who's involved with Scholastic Bowl and wants to become a writer.
Area Catholic schools look to future growth
Parochial schools throughout the country this week, which marks Catholic Schools Week in the United States, are evaluating their mission and their progress.
The newest of Champaign County's Catholic schools, the High School of St. Thomas More, has put its start-up uncertainties behind it and is focusing on projections for the future.
"When you start a school, there are so many questions: What support are you going to get, what teachers, what curriculum?" said St. Thomas More Principal Ed Kral. "We're past all those stages now. We're a full-fledged school with everything, and I anticipate a waiting list for freshmen in a year or two."
St. Thomas More's first class will graduate this spring, 17 students, and enrollment now is 183 for four grades.
"We opened in August 2000, and enrollment's coming in well," Kral said. "We have the basic core curriculum - English, math, science, social studies, foreign language, fine arts, theology. We have sports and extracurricular activities. We expect enrollment eventually to be about 400, and we're half that now.
"Our projection is that next year, we'll have 280 students and the following year, we'll be close to full enrollment."
As the student body grows, Kral plans to make curriculum additions, including advanced courses, computer classes, four years of Latin and a general studies program.
"We offer religion and a controlled environment, and that's what parents are looking for," Kral said.
At Philo's St. Thomas School, the county's smallest Catholic school, parents help keep activities flexible and relevant to the children and the community.
St. Thomas started in 1905 as St. Joseph Academy, a boarding school, but it became a day school in 1938 and changed its name that year after a fire, said Principal Ann Case.
This year, the school's enrollment declined by about 30 students, and Case attributes that to the fact that Unit 7, the Tolono-based public district, opened new elementary schools last fall. She said St. Thomas also graduated a large class of eighth-graders and had a small incoming kindergarten class.
But the spirit and community involvement at St. Thomas continues unchanged.
"One of the main things about our school is the small classes," Case said. "There's a lot of one-on-one attention. Another great advantage is our volunteer groups. This year we started a 'grandpeople group.' Interested people in the community help out in classrooms, with special hot lunches, by baby sitting at meetings, by making cookies and snacks."
Many students' parents and grandparents went to the school.
"Our kids feel comfortable. They take ownership of the school, they take the leadership," Case said. "We try to familiarize kids with the world around them, to take advantage of the community, and to do services projects for our missions," she said. "We made quilts to send to kids in Afghanistan. They look beyond the community to find out where they can help."
Mission is a big part of the program at St. Malachy School in Rantoul, and Sister Sara Koch said the school's students and parents all get involved in projects that make the school's 190 students and their parents an asset to the community.
Making a difference is the theme of the school's weeklong celebration.
"We make a difference in a lot of lives," Koch said. "We have ties to a lot of community organizations. We're very visible. We open our doors to programs in our building, and we're involved in activities that are a lot wider than the parish."
Every day this week, students' activities ranged widely from special recognition at, and participation in, church services to teacher/student volleyball games and parties.
Teachers at St. Matthew School take extra time to plan programs and write grants for special events like the one this week that transformed the southwest Champaign school into "An Ocean in a Cornfield," a concept that earned $800 from the Toshiba America Foundation.
About 465 students attend St. Matthew, an enrollment that's been increasing the past two years, Principal Kathy Scherer said. She said she's proud of the school's enrichment programs in art, music, algebra and other subjects and of a technology program that includes a 30-computer laboratory and laptops with full Internet access that children can carry to the classroom.
"That's been a focus for us the last five or six years," Scherer said. "We're looking at updating our technology plan and we're looking for a vision for the next five years. We have first-graders who do Power Point presentations. We're looking at burning CDs as electronic portfolios of each student's work through eighth grade."
Scherer said plans are in the works to add to the school's facilities.
"The parish is in the process of beginning to build a parish center, a new gym and additional classrooms," she said. "But we have to raise the money first."
Administrators at all the schools said their parishes and church members have always been generous about making contributions to make sure the quality of education in their schools is not compromised.