Nanette Levin Special to The Catholic Virginian

The challenges St. Anne Catholic School faces are unique to the Diocese of Richmond. Its long-time economic driver – the coal industry – is in a tailspin. Founded in 1949, it’s the only Catholic school in the Commonwealth bisected by a state line. The closest Catholic high schools are two hours away in Knoxville and Roanoke.

Teachers are challenged with preparing students for placement tests in three states as they leave this Pre-K3 through eighth-grade school and enter into public high schools with dissimilar curriculums. The majority of students come from Tennessee, which makes them ineligible for EISTC (Educational Improvement Scholarship Tax Credits) scholarships. Only 1 percent of the Virginian area population is Catholic. Entrance age for kindergarten is calculated as of July 31 in Tennessee, and Sept. 30 in Virginia.

The state line marker is relevant to St. Anne School, Bristol, as the school draws students from Tennessee and Virginia. (Photo/Ben Collins, Camelia Digital Agency).

Survive and thrive

Yet, the leadership is determined to ensure the school not only survives, but thrives. It’s a balancing act that includes creative problem-solving, fundraising strategies, experienced part-time teachers and attention to each student’s needs.

“We don’t want to be an elitist private school,” explained Wendy Cheers, director of marketing, development and admissions. “We’re not in Richmond; we’re not in Tidewater; we don’t have the resources those central schools do.”

What they do have is a dedicated staff and a philanthropic community determined to provide an exceptional education to students who come to St. Anne School for help.

Sue Melkowski taught at Virginia public high schools for 30 years before coming to St. Anne five years ago. She’s certified in both Tennessee and Virginia and works part time during the mornings with students in seventh and eighth grade math. She said one of her biggest challenges has been preparing students to place out of freshman math requirements as St. Anne feeds into five different school high school systems.

Last year, her 14 graduates went to schools in Virginia, Tennessee and North Carolina. To prepare students for placement tests, she split classes into two groups that overlapped the lunch period. This year, her eight students represent too small of a group to split, so she’s teaching Tennessee students additional material during homework time.

“If we had the luxury of K-12, I could prepare the kids for what they would be asked,” Melkowski said.

Standards, licensing requirements differ

While the Standards of Learning (SOL) of Virginia align well with Consensus Curriculum from the Diocese of Richmond, Common Core from Tennessee does not. With 60 percent of the students residing in Tennessee, this requires inventive strategies that prepare most students, but not all.

Finding teachers can be difficult, too. St. Anne has been fortunate to engage part-time public-school retiree stalwarts to support student learning. Teachers must be licensed in Virginia, but Tennessee colleges are closer.

There’s a stated reciprocal agreement, but a license from the Commonwealth often requires additional classes for Tennessee graduates. This can make it challenging to recruit and retain younger professionals.

St. Anne has been fortunate to gain support from some benefactors who have willed funds and land to the school and parish. In fact, Father Nicholas Mammi, who arrived at the end of June and serves as the pastor for the parish, lives in one of the gifted homes.

While the number of families applying for tuition assistance remains steady, the amount needed by each grows. The school tries to bridge the gap between what can be gained through EISTC and what is needed. This includes encouraging Tennessee families with means to sponsor a student.

The school’s 155 students evangelize in unintended ways. There are misunderstandings in Bristol about Catholicism. When residents witness St. Anne students’ attitudes at sporting events, community giving initiatives and public outings in uniform, prejudices disappear.

“There are so few Catholics in the area, people are not knowledgeable of our faith and therefore they do not realize that through Christ we have much in common with other denominations, said Billie Schneider, who has been on the school staff for 30, including the last three as principal. “Because there continues to be a separation of Catholic and Christian among many Protestants in Southwest Virginia, we consider it one of our missions to never let our faith or love of Christ be mistaken.”

Experience Christianity

Schneider is dedicated to seeing each student’s needs met while ensuring the school stays vibrant well into the future.

“St. Anne School has been and always will be the beat of my heart! To educate children in the ways of Christ is the most amazing opportunity!” she said. “Students in our school experience Christianity in real, day-to-day situations. Faith is woven into the fabric of the school day in hopes that faith becomes a natural part of our students’ lives,” she said.

She is also proud of the dedicated staff and the academically strong curriculum and safe environment the school provides.

“Academically, our students continue to achieve; they meet and most often exceed the expectations of the high schools in our area,” Schneider said.

Father Mammi meets with Schneider weekly to address the spiritual growth needs of students. He also celebrates Mass at the school on Wednesdays at 8:30 a.m., and celebrates Masses on holy days of obligation. Students also attend religion classes four days a week.

“I see great value in the school as it serves as an instrument of evangelization in Christ’s kingdom not only for enrolled students — who receive a superior moral, spiritual, intellectual, and psycho-social education — but also for the parents and other family members who, in many instances, know little about Christ and his Church,” the priest said via email.

Cheers underscores the challenges of providing for low-income students. She estimates what a parent can pay then sets to work figuring out how to make up the difference. While EISTC helps with some Virginia students, it doesn’t cover meal costs, field trips, uniforms, transportation and other expenses many families can’t afford. Consequently, school leaders set up a separate donation-funded pool of money for these needs.

Tuition rates range from $3,059 to $6,492, depending on age and whether or not the child is Catholic. Discounts are provided for parents with multiple children attending the school.

The school continues to work on development issues, including growing the small endowment. Part of this includes educating Bristol residents and parents about estate planning. The PTO provides support for the school, as do the Knights of Columbus. One benefit to the school’s Virginia location, just north of the Tennessee state line, is Monday Bingo. Tennessee forbids this so people cross the border for this revenue-generating activity.

The school, according to Father Mammi, is an integral part of the Catholic community.

“The parish and school strive to approach an inter-dynamic support system that works through various avenues: parishioners send their children and grandchildren to the school; the students bring great joy to the parish by serving at liturgy and offering the hope that they may eventually become young adult parishioners,” he said. “Many volunteers serve both school and parish; several staff are assigned duties that serve both school and parish; the parish and school work together to share the financial burden that most Catholic institutions face today simply to remain viable.”

In a community dealing with challenges ranging from opioid addiction to extreme poverty, St. Anne School strives to serve ask a safe-haven, spiritual beacon and academic bastion for kids in the community. They survive because others have stepped up to help.

“Our students are our biggest evangelizers,” said Cheers. “They may be someone’s only exposure to a Catholic.”