PALM SPRINGS | Resilience. That is what St. Luke School is known for, said Principal Diann Bacchus. Resilience and a strong Catholic identity.
The school, which is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year, is now nearly at capacity with 295 students and growing. There are plans to build a new gymnasium, cafeteria and six classrooms. She said they had hoped to kick off the 60th by tearing down a building to make way for the new structure, but the process has been slower than expected.
“But by the end of our 60th year that building’s coming down, and I think that’s a real milestone for the school to say we’re 60 years strong and that we are here with this new building coming,” said Bacchus, who added that the motto for the celebration is “serve and grow.”
The school has certainly grown over the past 60 years. St. Luke School opened its doors in September 1962 for grades one through five with Sisters of Mercy from Ireland as the teachers. The first graduation took place in May 1966.
Commemoration of the anniversary began with a visit by Bishop Gerald M. Barbarito on Sept. 2 that included Mass and a luncheon for community leaders. Other events to mark the 60th year include a celebration with cake at St. Luke sponsored by Cardinal Newman High School; the parish Fall Festival, which was Nov. 4-6; and a dinner-dance for school families planned for February.
Bacchus said they’re always looking for opportunities to strengthen the connection between the parish and school, which she credits with helping the school rebound from leaner days. When she started at the school 10 years ago as a math and science teacher, the parish and school operated mostly as separate entities. Now, they work closely together.
The tight connection between parish and school is aided by the three-person team of Bacchus, Father Andrew Brierley, pastor of St. Luke, and Pat DeMartino, regional director of the University of Notre Dame’s ACE Academies, which partners with St. Luke to assist in advancement, teaching, learning and boosting Catholic culture. St. Luke has adopted the ACE slogan that its goal is preparing students for college and heaven.
“I think we’re known now for having a strong partnership with Notre Dame, and the leadership that is filtered down from that has been tremendous,” Bacchus said.
DeMartino said that, when she was first placed at St. Luke, her work centered mostly on advancement and recruitment of families to increase enrollment.
“We were around 165 when I started in 2016, and we’re now at 295. So, we’re very happy with that,” she said. “And again, it wasn’t me. It was the three of us working all dimensions of the community. I do a lot now in professional development with the teachers, with the PLCs (professional learning communities) or workshops, in-services, coaching, and I work with Diann.”
Father Brierley, who has been at St. Luke nine years, said, “If you’re building a Catholic identity, the focus has to be on the parish and school. So, we’ve inculcated that philosophy into the school.”
One of his first priorities was introducing the concept of “Sunday service” in which students in fourth grade and higher serve the parish on Sundays by being an usher, altar server, reader, choir member or working the computer screen at Masses.
“Lots of opportunities are available,” he said. “And of course, if the children are in church it means their parents have to be in church. The whole family comes to church. So, we’ve seen that church attendance has gone up dramatically. The parish roll has gone from 1,600 registered families to just under 3,000.”
The typical St. Luke student is from the parish and surrounding neighborhoods, Bacchus said. About 80 percent of the students receive some sort of tuition assistance from the state, she added. Families who don’t qualify for state programs are encouraged to apply for parish scholarships.
“We support the families, the community and the students even to the point where we provide free breakfast and lunch to all the students,” DeMartino said.
“It’s a wonderful school,” she added. “The population is dynamic. It’s a multicultural, multilingual school, and there’s a great relationship among the students here.”
St. Luke School’s vibrant band program is an aspect of curriculum for which the leaders literally toot their horns. Citing the well-documented connection between higher achievement in math for students involved in school band programs, Bacchus said all students in grades five to seven are mandated to participate in band.
“I love band. I think it’s unbelievably helpful. I want to give the kids a really well-rounded education because not everyone is a traditional scholar, so I want them to find what makes them happy to grow and continue on in life,” she said.
It’s advantageous for families that the school was able to purchase, through grants, all of the instruments for the students to use, guided by a full-time band director, Frank Raimondi. Next year, eighth-graders will be involved in the band program, Bacchus said.
Another sign of the close school-parish ties is that parish music director Kevin Faulkner is a part-time music teacher at the school. “I think we’re the only middle school in the whole county that has kids playing the tuba and the French horn,” said Father Brierley, who also teaches religion and eighth-grade Latin at the school.
A new addition to the band program is the purchase of violins for students in first grade, which will continue into fourth grade, said Bacchus, who added that the school strives to expose students to a wide variety of cultural experiences, which even extends to the sports field.
Two years ago, when the COVID-19 pandemic prompted the suspension of school sports leagues, St. Luke taught some students how to play cricket, a popular sport in Father Brierley’s home country of England. He gave the students a few pointers on how to whack a tennis ball in the field.
St. Luke School has labored long and hard to celebrate 60 years and make an impact in the community while looking to the future.
“Diann has students every morning lead them in the chant of ‘What are our goals?’ College and heaven. ‘How do we get there?’ Seek, persist, excel, love and serve,” DeMartino said. “We work diligently to have that mindset and that culture in the students, and we are very lucky to have the support of Father Andrew in the school and working as a team. It’s a team effort.” For more information about St. Luke School, visit https://stlukepalmsprings.org/, or about the parish at www.stlukeparish.com. To learn about all the schools in the Diocese of Palm Beach, go to www.diocesepbschools.org.