Melissa Garmon, who teaches fourth and fifth graders, leads a discussion about prayer. “We live our faith every single day,” said Fr. Manuel Becerra, St. Vincent de Paul Parish pastor. “It’s part of who we are.” Fr. Becerra leads the children in praying the rosary every week. (Kristen Hannum/Catholic Sentinel)
Melissa Garmon, who teaches fourth and fifth graders, leads a discussion about prayer. “We live our faith every single day,” said Fr. Manuel Becerra, St. Vincent de Paul Parish pastor. “It’s part of who we are.” Fr. Becerra leads the children in praying the rosary every week. (Kristen Hannum/Catholic Sentinel)
“This is my school.”

A preschool girl, her plaited hair slightly askew and in the midst of racing around the polished wooden floors of St. Vincent de Paul School’s gym on the first day of the school year, pauses to confide that important news to principal Angelica Gloria.

“Yes, this is your school,” Gloria agrees.

The girl nods, solemn and pleased, then bursts away, rejoining the other 3- and 4-year-olds spinning hula hoops, bouncing balls, but mostly running, skipping and nearly taking to the air with exuberance.

Their energy encapsulates that of the school, the first of its kind in the Archdiocese of Portland.

The north Salem school, founded in 1925, launched a dual language immersion program in 2020. Bilingual educators teach in both Spanish and English, with the goal of graduating fully bilingual students.

“Well-implemented two-way immersion programs are among the most impressive forms of education available in the United States,” according to the Center for Applied Linguistics. “Students who participate in these programs gain grade level academic ability, well-developed language and literacy skills in two languages, and cross-cultural competence.”

There are 100 students enrolled at St. Vincent de Paul this year, preschool through fifth grade. That’s up from 52 last year.Before that, the archdiocese and parish had faced the possibility — probability, in fact — that the school would have to be shuttered.

“The school, financially speaking, was not doing well,” said Father Manuel Becerra, pastor. “And the needs of the community were not being met.”

Many parents in the area could not speak English and so could not negotiate the English-speaking school. Teenagers were bilingual but could not read or write Spanish.

In the meantime, there was a growing understanding of the value of speaking more than one language and the fact that young brains learn languages easily compared to older people. In Portland, 10 public schools offer dual language immersion in Spanish, with demand so high there’s an enrollment lottery.

Father Becerra and Gloria say help from the department of schools at the archdiocese was critical, in part pointing the parish to model Catholic programs in places like Florida and California.

“Without them it would not have been possible,” said Father Becerra. “It’s how the Holy Spirit works.”

Father Becerra and Gloria describe the reborn St. Vincent de Paul School in terms of its mascot, the phoenix: a new school in an old shell.

The staff is 100% bilingual, all newly hired in 2020 or this year. “They’re a dream team,” said Gloria, also hired in 2020 as founding principal of the new program.

She’s keeping class sizes small, 15 in each kindergarten class and 20 in the grades, but she hopes for 20 more students this year, which would allow her to hire another teacher. There is a waiting list for some of the classes.

Gloria expects the school’s success to continue. “This is a great community,” she said. “We’re at the heart of this area, and we’re getting great feedback and support.”

The newest staffer, Juan Jauregui, is an outreach coordinator who also helps with playground duty and other tasks on campus. His primary role, however, is coordinating volunteers to bring financial and other community support to the school, including finding businesses that can mentor students.

Gloria said the goal was to provide an affordable or even free Catholic education to every family.

“We’re developing business partners and growing our donor base,” said Jauregui.

In the teachers’ lunchroom, Alma Sanders, who teaches kindergarten, said staff is building on last year’s experiences. “It’s calmer,” she said of this year’s first day. “And we teachers are better able to help each other.”

There’s also the reassurance of knowing that even if the worst happens — last year that meant smoke from the fires so bad that the school needed to close for two days, and then COVID-19 shutting schools — systems are in place to alleviate the trouble.

Last year Gloria applied for an emergency child care license for the school, meaning it could stay open during the shutdown, teaching for two hours a day and then providing educational child care. The school also received funding that allowed for a sanitation station at each classroom door as well as plastic shields for every student’s desk.

The protections don’t seem to dampen communication or learning.

In a fifth grade religion class, conducted in English because it’s the afternoon (morning classes are in Spanish), students told teacher Melissa Garmon what prayer means to them.

Garmon had to choose among many upraised hands.

“It helps us become closer to Jesus and God,” Amy Armstrong said.

Gloria, looking on, beamed. “This is a dream job,” she said.