Nanette Levin, Special to The Catholic Virginian

As an eighth grader at Sacred Heart School, Danville, Martina Arrien takes three high school-credit classes — Spanish 1, Algebra 1 and Geometry. She’s also the volleyball team captain.

Born in Bolivia, she’s been attending Sacred Heart since Pre-K3. Next year she’ll attend Galileo Magnet High School. While excited about the new opportunities, she’ll miss Sacred Heart, especially the Family Circles. These groups of about 16 kids each remain together like a family unit throughout the student’s tenure at Sacred Heart.

“The younger kids give me hugs,” said Arrien, who’s been in the same Family Circle for 10 years.

She recalled her first day of school, explaining, “I didn’t know in a couple of years they’d be my best friends and my families.”

Nicholas Kania and Gavin Maxey, students at Sacred Heart School, Danville, participate in a read-a-thon that raised more than $900 for Heifer International. (Photo/Nanette Levin, The Catholic Virginian)

Charlie Bowman was named student of the month in November by the Danville Kiwanis Club, which honors one student from all public and private schools throughout the region. Each month a school is selected as the focus of this award. Teachers from that school choose the student recipient.

“He’s so humble and he was like, ‘I’m not the best in academics’ . . . he sees the other kids as maybe being better or more deserving . . . I think that just kind of adds to his character and I really do appreciate those teachers choosing him because it really means a lot,” said his mother, Carol Bowman.

Kira Kania, Sacred Heart principal, is used to seeing high achievers.

“Our kids come out top of class,” she said, referring to their performance in high school.

Preparing for life after graduation

While the school only has the children through eighth grade, staff focus effort well beyond graduation.

“To prepare our students for the next level, we try hard to lay a moral foundation so students make good choices and choose to surround themselves around people that make good choices,” Kania explained.

Roanoke Catholic, a two-hour drive, is the closest diocesan high school, so high school options are non-Catholic private or public schools.

Sacred Heart School has 168 students, starting with Pre-K2. Danville, with a population of around 43,000, abuts the North Carolina state line about mid-way across the Virginia border. It is primarily a Baptist community with a struggling economy and a declining population.

These challenges require educators to find creative ways to make the school attractive for a diverse student body where poverty can be an issue.

The Education Improvement Scholarship Tax Credits Program (EISTCP) helped balance the budget and make a Catholic education accessible to more families in the area. Danville is not a wealthy community. The median household income is $32,315.

On average, families can afford $3,500 for tuition. Sacred Heart’s annual fees are $6,900- $7,200. The school has been able to bridge the gap with EISTCP scholarships, other donations and discounts to families with more than one child enrolled. The threshold to qualify for EISTCP scholarships is $73,800 for a family of four, so most students qualify for support.

Forty-five students, or more than 25 percent, are Latino. While those attending Sacred Heart are required to speak English, parents of some children often do not. To foster good communication, Sacred Heart employs a bilingual staffer for meetings with Hispanic adults.

Safe environment, quality education

Carol Bowman, a Baptist and a Sacred Heart graduate, is the school board president. Her son, Charlie, will graduate this year.

“That school really played a big role in how I developed and what I ended up being able to accomplish in life,” she said. “That foundation of elementary and middle school at Sacred Heart really paid off through my college years.”

She cited quality of education and safety as two reasons the school appeals to non-Catholics. All public schools in Danville have lost Commonwealth accreditation or are on probation, requiring performance improvements before they can be removed from the list.

“Every year we go through a phase — where, say after the first quarter or even after the second quarter of school, we get more children because these kids are having a hard time with bullying, or just not fitting in, or the academics are not right for them — something is wrong . . . and their families make the choice to bring them to Sacred Heart,” Bowman said.

Providing an alternative to other schools brings opportunities and challenges for Sacred Heart. The school works with a diverse body of students, requiring personalized attention which brings some additional costs — a challenge for a school with a tight budget located in a small, economically-challenged community.

The family atmosphere, faith-based philosophies, small classes and staff attract people to consider Sacred Heart.

Bowman refers to the school as the “village that I love.”

“I would trust any person over there with my child. It’s the type of school where — and this has happened many times for many of us parents there — something happens, we can’t get to the school to pick up our child or something’s going on — we make one phone call or we send out one thing on social media and there’s just a huge convoy of other parents jumping in to help, and I just think that’s a wonderful thing” she explained.

“I see them (Charlie’s class at Sacred Heart) as being life-long friends and maybe even colleagues,” Bowman said. “I’m still very much in touch with some of my Sacred Heart friends because of social media and I think, for him, it’s just going to be even better.”

“It’s actually very sad this year to have one leaving,” says Tracie Scearce, whose son is graduating. Her daughter is in fifth grade.

“They love Sacred Heart. When I say it’s like a second family, when Stephen started pre-school Sarah was only a couple of months old, so she has known nothing but the school,” she said.

Incorporates Christian practices

Scearce appreciates the faith-based community of Sacred Heart. She was looking for a school that could provide a place to pray so her children could incorporate Christian practices into their life.

“The way that the program is, it identifies with all faiths. I never felt like an outsider because we weren’t Catholic,” said Scearce, adding she’s enjoyed her kids picking up many Catholic traditions, such as Mass.

“The people that I have met through Sacred Heart have turned out to be lifetime friends,” Scearce said. “We vacation together, trust each other, know that we love each other’s families and look out for them as if they were our own.”

With the close relationships built between staff and student, accommodations are made that make the school attractive to prospects and helpful to graduates’ long-term success. Teachers know students’ strengths and weaknesses and most can point them to the best opportunities available inside and outside the community as they focus on high school success.

Many staffers, Kania included, chose Sacred Heart for their kids. This makes them well-equipped to understand parent issues during and after their children’s tenure. The personal knowledge they share helps other parents feel more comfortable about ultimate choices while leading students to more success after they leave the comfort of this Catholic environment.

The school motto is: “Where Tradition Inspires Tomorrow.” Kania, her staff and the parents of current students, many alumni, work together to help make this so for the students attending and for the entire community of Danville.