School improvements are a top priority

By David Lias

Education has changed a great deal in the last 50 years.

Trying to adapt to those changes with facilities that are half a century old is challenging, to say the least, to everyone associated with St. Agnes Elementary School in Vermillion.

That’s why the school will receive top priority as St. Agnes prepares to launch its public fundraising campaign on Sept. 11.

“Elementary schools today don’t function like elementary schools did when this building was built. Kids today go to a library, they go to a computer lab, they go to a music room, and none of that was really built into the original structure,” said Rick Frisch, a consultant with the Catholic Diocese of Eastern South Dakota in Sioux Falls. “It (the school) has both capacity issues and usage limitations.”

Frisch became involved with the campaign to provide assistance to the St. Agnes Parish.

“Enrollment has gone from under 60 children to right at 100 children in school now. That doesn’t include the preschool and the Red and Gold program, which is about another 60, so somewhere in the vicinity of 150 to 160 kids are over there in that school, which is a pretty large number for the size of the school,” Fischer said.

Temporary buildings have been put in place on the school grounds to provide needed classroom space.

More than just infrastructure needs at the school will be addressed. Goals of the campaign also include establishing endowments that will provide tuition assistance, teacher development and school technology improvements well into the future.

“We’re looking at, in the long term, putting some endowed scholarships in place to help with student education so that parishioners don’t have to scramble quite as hard, especially the poorer ones, to be able to come to St. Agnes without having to feel the stigma of not being able to pay,” Father John Fischer, pastor at St. Agnes Church, said. “We do have nine endowed scholarships at this point that are partially funded, and one that is helping with teacher enhancement. This would probably be another $3 million in the long run.”

“The school is the most important – if nothing else happens, the school is the future of our country, really. Those kids are going to determine the future for this community, and we believe that a good Catholic value-based education is something this parish can do for this community that makes it better,” said Tim Tracy, a deacon of St. Agnes Church. “It makes it a better place to live, and it makes better citizens.

“For the school, we are soliciting some business participation, and we’ve had a fairly substantial amount of business participation to this point, he added.

Tracy, the administrator of Sanford Vermillion Hospital, noted that “Sanford Health has always been very active with both public schools and private, so we’re going to help some with this initiative, and our foundation is, too.”

Other local businesses that are committed to the campaign include Aaladin Industries of Elk Point and Masaba Mining and Quality Motors, both of Vermillion.

“There are a lot of folks out there who are participating, and there is some precedence for industry to step in. For Sanford’s standpoint, about 15 percent of the school enrollment is related to somebody who works at Sanford, and when you think about that, and how we recruit professional nurses and doctors and other staff, that is an important piece for me, as the leader over there, as a recruitment tool for the community as well as economic development,” Tracy said. “There are a lot of leaders in the community that have their children go to school here – Catholic and non-Catholic alike.”

Fischer said no definite construction schedule for the school improvements has been formulated yet.

“We first must have sufficient enough dollars put together to go to the Bishop’s (Paul J. Swain) office and get his permission,” he said. “He is aware of the project, he is wholeheartedly in favor of the project, but we have to do our part, do our homework, so to speak, by having enough money on hand.”

“It’s an exciting time. I know that myself, along with the staff, feels very blessed to be able to work at a Catholic school,” said Darla Hamm, principal of St. Agnes School. “We’re very passionate about what we do – not only educating our students, but educating them in their faith and helping them to be good Christians who will go out and make a difference in this world, and make the choices to take care of not only themselves but everyone around them.”

“In many campaigns, you do what is called a silent phase, a quiet phase, which is really about trying to ensure that there is enough support there to do what you want to do before you go to a broader public,” Frisch said. “You test your ideas, you develop your concepts, and then ultimately you start talking to people who might have real interest in making this project work. Assuming all of that plays out the way you hope it will, in our case on Sept. 11 we go to not only the parish community but we also will be encouraging the Vermillion community to come and join us.”

“I feel like it is our mission to be where we are,” Hamm said. “It’s exciting that we’ve grown so much and we have the opportunity to be here when there is going to be this big expansion and change.

“I love being at St. Agnes. There are people who are so supportive of the school and the church and they go above and beyond,” she said. “That’s why this will be a success. We have so many people in our parish who are so giving and generous and thoughtful.”

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