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A confluence of coincidences at D.C.’s St. Peter School

St. Peter School on Capitol Hill
St. Peter School

A friend who I had not spoken to in over a decade contacted me to say that she sends a couple of her children to the St. Peter School and thought that I would enjoy paying a visit. So last Friday I had the distinct pleasure to talk with the principal of the school Jennifer Ketchum.

St. Peter’s is a Pre-Kindergarten four through eighth grade Capitol Hill Catholic School founded in 1868. It draws its 220 students primarily from the parishioners of St. Peter’s and St. Joseph’s churches. Class sizes are small, having an average of 23 pupils each; there is one class per grade.

You may already be familiar with the St. Peter School. In 2013 it won the highly prestigious Blue Ribbon Award from the United States Department of Education. The prize is based upon having standardized test scores in both reading and math over the 75 percent proficiency range as well as a host of other criteria such as effective home and school communication, an academically challenging state-of-the art curriculum, frequent monitoring of student progress, and a safe learning environment. Mrs. Ketchum explained to me that while public schools are selected for the Blue Ribbon Award based upon performance within a particular state, in the private school world the U.S. Department of Education compares educational institutions across the country. “We are one of only 50 private schools in the United States to receive this distinction this year,” the St. Peter’s principal proudly exclaimed. The only other Blue Ribbon School in the nation’s capital in 2013 was D.C. Prep Public Charter School’s Edgewood Elementary School Campus.

But this topic was not why I was there. We quickly changed the subject to community service projects at the school. Mrs. Ketchum told me about “Student Families” in which teams of children from every grade level are grouped together headed by an eighth grader. Each team, or family, then works on a common community service activity. The current undertaking has been in support Cup of Joe, which is a program started by Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington that together with volunteer groups has provided over 100,000 breakfast bags of food to homeless women and men who come into shelters overnight. Cup of Joe was started in honor of the philanthropic work on behalf of children by my hero Joseph E. Robert, Jr. Now I realized why it was recommended that I go see the school.

Mrs. Ketchum related that Student Families was started four years ago at the school. “It is a wonderful endeavor in that it teaches our senior class lessons in leadership, responsibility, and the need to care of others,” the principal stated. The students meet quarterly to work on their project and gather at other times throughout the school year on other events such as Field Day. Mrs. Ketchum informed me that it was a parent who suggested Cup of Joe for their community service effort. The kids ended up preparing over 1,500 bags, many of them decorated, which all contained passages from the Scripture in both English and Spanish.

But it was more than the Cup of Joe effort that attracted me to St. Peter’s. The parochial school also proudly accepts students through the Opportunity Scholarship Program, which for years was administered by an organization Mr. Robert founded. This term the institution has three pupils through the Federal private school voucher plan but usually, according to Mrs. Ketchum, they have eight or nine. She indicated to me that these underprivileged students usually do quite well in the close-knit community that is the culture of this school. If the children end up having academic difficulty with the curriculum of the Archdiocese of Washington whose foundation, Mrs. Ketchum explained, is the challenging Indiana State standards, then the school has Student Assistance Teams that can help. Each SAT is comprised of a teacher, resource instructor, counselor, and administrator that focuses on the individual needs of the student and designs a plan to increase the likelihood of their success at St. Peter’s.

On a tour of the school during which we peeked into a Pre-Kindergarten class with smiling energetic uniform-clad children I asked Mrs. Ketchum why she thought the school was so successful. “We approach the education of our students in a holistic, faith-based manner,” the principal answered. “We set extremely high standards and place a tremendous emphasis on character and forming individuals with solid Catholic identities. We have a sense of community here that is integrated vertically involving all grade levels and families. From the administration to teachers to parents we all work together for the benefit of the children.”