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Little school with a big mission

The unassuming little Catholic school at Fifth Street and Veneta Avenue has a history as rich as the community itself.

The school, which celebrated its 75th year of operation last month, is part of Our Lady Star of the Sea Catholic Church. The church itself has begun a year-long centennial celebration due to culminate in a big birthday bash Sept. 28, 2002, said church officials.

A dinner auction to benefit the school will be held tonight at 5:30. Call 373-5162 for reservations.

After serving a year as an Army chaplain during World War I, Father Camerman, then the pastor for Our Lady, returned to Bremerton in 1919 and “turned his efforts to building a parish school,” said Diane Mahoney of the church staff.

A building fund was started. In 1921, construction of the school began at Sixth and Veneta. On Nov. 21 of that year, Bishop O’Dea blessed the new three-story brick building. The upper floor became the parish church, according to historical information supplied by Mahoney. At this time the church was located at Fifth and Washington Avenue.

The school, which serves about 200 students and has about a dozen teachers today, did not begin operations until 1926, when it was staffed by Dominican nuns from Edmonds, said Jill Metcalf, current school principal.

“Back then, there was one class at each grade level, grades 1 through 6,” she said. “There were 120 students. Two years later, the school added grades 7 and 8.”

The first graduating class was June 11, 1928. Enrollment climbed steadily, and by 1944, there were 500 students, Mahoney said.

The school continued to be staffed by nuns until about eight years ago, Metcalf said. At first, the nuns were probably not credentialed, she said. Eventually they were fully trained and credentialed educators. Today, the school is staffed by lay teachers who are all credentialed, she said.

Metcalf said as time went by, alumni returned to the school to teach.

“In the 1980s, there were as many as six teachers on staff who were graduates of the school,” she said. Metcalf is a graduate of the class of 1964. She returned and taught 20 years before becoming principal in 1994.

Many graduates went on to successful careers in society and the church, she said. One local notable grad is Bremerton Police Chief Rob Forbes.

The old three-story brick schoolhouse was deemed seismically unsafe in 1991, and students moved to temporary quarters. The new school at Fifth and Veneta was dedicated and opened in 1996.

“This was the first new school building in the (Seattle) Archdiocese in 30 years,” commented Metcalf.

“This is a big year for us because we’re undergoing national accreditation,” the principal said. The school has already achieved state accreditation. “This brings a sharper focus on our continuing efforts toward academic excellence, and helps us with long-range planning,” she said.

As part of aligning the school’s curriculum with national accreditation standards, the school is drafting a five-year plan, she explained.

The school includes a Catholic Youth Organization after-school program, student government, and other extracurricular activities such as band, a Chess Club and French Club.

Metcalf said one of the advantages of a small school is smaller classes — only 20 to 22 students typically.

“Our students like our school because of its size,” she said. “They can really develop community spirit here.”

She said the church’s current pastor, the Rev. Patrick Freitag, is a big supporter.

“He gives a weekly mass for students, and visits classrooms,” she said.

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