For 88 years St. Mary Catholic School has reached across racial, religious and even state boundaries to continue excellence in education as well as traditional values.

For the new principal, Denise Willingham, this is a coveted place to be.

“We are a family here,” Willingham said. “I can’t imagine being anywhere else, or having my children anywhere else.”

Though a transplant to Southeast Texas, she has been with St. Mary as an educator for eleven years. She is now the principal as well as an active classroom teacher teaching Algebra and Math. She is also a parent of a fourth grade student. Though hers may sound like a unique story, for St. Mary’s this is highly normal. Many of the students are second or even third generation students at the facility.

Once a full graded school, K through 12, it now runs with approximately 175 students Pre-K three – eighth grades, it is currently located in Orange at 2600 Bob Hall Road. An alumni and board member, Glenda Lucia explains, “There are grandparents who went through this school that now are seeing their grandchildren go here.” She, herself, was a student that went K through 12th grade at St. Mary.

“Once you go here you want to see your children and grandchildren go here as well,” Lucia said.

With the school year now in full swing, there are a lot of activities. St. Mary participates in sports with the SAPL, an athletic league that has inter-private school competitions. There are field trips planned and academic camps to attend. The small school atmosphere is welcoming to students and parents. The smaller class sizes assure great teacher/student interaction and relationship for better learning. This in no way, however, means they are behind the times technologically nor in their security.

“We have be proactive when it comes to security,” Willingham said. “We have a new security system and teach our children about awareness.”

She goes on to explain the security cards issued to each parent similar to those in hospitals and plants that allow only certain individuals to enter the building. There is also a very deliberate effort to maintain a safe atmosphere for teachers and students that may stay late, even after dark. Willingham is referring to the after school care program.

“It is really a gift that we offer parents [to show] that if they work and sacrifice to send their kids here, then we offer this for their kids safety and for peace of mind.”

Those who participate do not have to be gathered onto day care vans and taken off premises, but stay in the care of teachers and aids that can help with homework or provide activities to let the students burn energy. The after school program stays open until 6 p.m., just as a day care would.

For the students of St. Mary, the process of education is not just about valuable academic learning but also community and service leadership. One of the areas where the school has always excelled has been in the arena of giving to the community.

“All our ‘fun’ days or activities are geared for service,” Willingham said.

She explained their most recent venture having been the “Smile on Wheels” event that recently took place in Bridge City. This project connects dentists who donate their services with children who lack dental care. The volunteer students help patients and doctors in various ways.

“We had 45 students take part in ‘Smile on Wheels.’ We received so many compliments on their behavior and the work ethic. I am very proud of our students,” Willingham said.

Those who participated got to wear their shirts they received for service filling the halls with the non-traditional orange shirt. This is a reward to get a break from their uniforms. They also, recently, were allowed to pay a donation to wear street clothes for one day with all the proceeds going to the Bastrop fire victims. It is a part of a culture of service and responsibility the head of the school if fostering.

“My goal, if I were to put a name to it, is to teach greater community service,” Willingham said.

Their students also participate with helping at a local soup kitchen on Wednesdays and have donated funds from their first school dances to the animal shelter. Their Junior Master Gardeners are busy working on beautification plans to receive a coveted city beautification awards. All this is done along side the academic portion of the activities. The fifth graders have the opportunity to attend Camp Kappe in Plantersville, Texas, which teaches environmental conservation and upkeep.

Though they are a Catholic school and have mass and religion classes, they do not force Catholicism on non-catholic students.

“It is more our desire to show them [religion] can enhance their lives,” Willingham said.
Just as they have some students from outside their faith, there are also students from outside of the state. Five families, carpool their kids from Vinton, La. to be a part of the student body. Out of all the schools in the Dioceses, St. Mary’s is the lowest in tuition. They feed into public schools as well as Kelly in Beaumont.

They are a source of pride for former and current students. Many alumni plan events coinciding with the annual festival, the only fund raising event the school produces which is held the last full weekend of every April. Current and former students come together to volunteer and create a fun carnival weekend. There are foods, entertainment, and a multitude of vendor booths as well as other attractions.

This year a 50th class reunion decided to gather at the same time as the event. Glenda Lucia, who is attending the reunion said, “We specifically talk about the school. We loved attending her and want it to continue.

It is these types of individuals that make the technology classes up to date and add their funds to help procure various items that would not be in the normal budget. It is these traditional values, that former students learned about community and service to it that are carried on today in the very same halls they once walk.

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