Abby Sandel has children at St. Jerome Academy in Hyattsville, Maryland.
How long have you been at your school? What grades are your children in?
We've been here since 2009, when our older child started pre-kindergarten. He graduated in 2019 and is now a sophomore at DeMatha Catholic High School. Our daughter is in seventh grade; she also started in pre-kindergarten.
I was in the church when our former pastor and principal talked about the possibility of the school closing, and was at the first meeting where a classical curriculum was introduced. So we have some history here!
How did you learn about your school?
When we moved to the Washington DC area when our older child was a toddler, one of our top priorities was living within walking distance of our church and our children's school. I wanted to hear our church's bells from our front door. It didn't really occur to me to look too hard at the school itself—we'd settled on Catholic education for our children before we were even married. To me, Catholic education mattered because I wanted a strong culture and a meaningful connection to our school community. As a young parent, I definitely didn't understand how complex that wish really was…
Looking back, it's really quite miraculous how well it all turned out!
Why is it worth paying tuition when public schools are free?
Faith is not an extracurricular activity.
While I have tremendous respect for religious educators, the idea of reducing religious education to one night a week strikes me as completely inadequate. I can't imagine putting our children's faith formation on our family calendar as if it's just another soccer practice. Growing in faith, especially for children, means spending our days in an environment where faith is practiced and modeled consistently.
It's simply not possible to have a full education without a faith perspective embedded in everything that is taught. That's especially true with history and literature, but SJA faculty in science and art and every discipline have shaped our children's love of God and sense that they have a responsibility to something greater than themselves.
And it's significant that our children see different ways and approaches to living out their faith over the course of their education. I hope my children see their parents as examples of living a faith-filled life. But I take tremendous comfort in knowing that they have many other examples of Catholic adulthood to draw on—particularly as they enter their middle school years.
A great many people and environments can teach my children arithmetic and spelling. It takes a special place to form them into young men and women of character. Public schools try, I know—but they're stuck with a pretty thin gruel to nourish these ideals. We're not paying for the mechanics of learning; we believe that our tuition dollars are an investment in the kind of world in which we hope our children will participate.
What made you choose your school over other schools in your area?
We didn't seriously look at other schools until our older child approached middle school. Several other Catholic (and private) schools came up at that time. But as we considered our options, we recognized how incredibly well the classical approach was preparing our children for high school and beyond. In a world that shouts STEM and talks test scores, our children were turning into reasoned thinkers who could hold a conversation and craft an argument. We began to appreciate just how rare and valuable that skill truly is, and how more conventional schools—even excellent ones—can fall short.
How would you describe your school to a parent who is considering applying?
First, because I think it's what parents want to know: It's a place where academic achievement is valued, but there's a good balance of encouragement to work hard, and a recognition that every child has his or her own gifts to offer.
One of the most magical things about SJA—somehow, the faculty and staff have managed to build a school culture where children are excited to make the honor roll, and willing to work hard to get there, even into 7th and 8th grades. It's evident to me that this is not the norm. I cannot imagine anything sadder than being in a school where academic success is seen as something to hide!
But second, because I think it's probably what we truly need to understand as parents: A whole-hearted kindness is fostered. It's impressive to see how naturally older students help younger students. For example, older students are assigned Mass buddies—younger children to walk and sit with at Mass. One of the absolute best moments of my life was watching my 6 foot tall 8th grader help a tiny kindergartener reach the holy water as they exited Mass together. I think there are moments like that every day—we see children becoming their best selves.
What are your thoughts on your school’s teachers? Your children’s peer group and other school families? Catholic identity? Culture? Curriculum?
I'm really not sure I can put it into words.
All teaching is a calling, even in a secular setting. But SJA faculty are truly mission-minded. It takes so much energy to shape a classical curriculum. It's labor-intensive. For example, my daughter's seventh grade class doesn't take a lot of regular tests. They write essays. They have debates. It's far, far more engaging for the students, but I've no doubt that it's several orders of magnitude more complex for faculty.
One of my favorite SJA teachers says that the school "gives them something better to love." And that's really it. In a culture filled with so much noise, our gifted faculty have found a way to point our children's attention to the good, the beautiful, and the true. They're kids, and we're all human, so it only works some of the time. But that's enough.
It's hard to overstate how much I've appreciated the other school families. Other parents I know talk about middle school and high school as challenging, even miserable. And I get it, I do! But I feel so grateful that my kids have gone into these formative years with a rock solid group of friends, friends who have also come through St. Jerome's. Part of it, I'm sure, is that their friends' parents have become our friends, too. It's a close-knit community, and those ties benefit every one. As another friend put it when our children graduated 8th grade, "These kids are all going to be at each others' weddings." I think that's probably true—these friendships endure.
We choose SJA because we share a baseline worldview—a determination to raise our children in a faith-filled environment—but also because being in that environment together shapes them, and in turn, our families.
What is the most important reason you stay at your school?
St. Jerome Academy is at the center of a big community that feels small. It's intentionally counter-cultural. One of the things I love about this place: everyone wears hand-me-downs. If there's a status symbol, it's a three year-old minivan. Everyone gets really excited about bake sales. There's nothing flashy or competitive about the school. Instead, there's a quiet confidence that comes from knowing we've found a really good answer to the question of what matters most.
I believe that St. Jerome's classical curriculum isn't just the best possible educational foundation for my children. It's also the best preparation for a meaningful life. I can't imagine raising my children without the support and partnership of the faculty at SJA and the community that surrounds it.