Stella Maris Academy
BY CHRISTINA GRAY
Two years after the 2019 closure of its more than century-old grammar school, Star of the Sea Parish welcomed 53 students from preschool through eighth grade to the new Stella Maris Academy in August 2021.
Head of School Gavin Colvert was hired in 2020 to help pastor Father Joseph Illo realize his dream of transforming the parish school into an academy of classical Catholic liberal arts education.
What distinguishes Stella Maris (Star of the Sea) Academy, said Colvert, is that the curriculum “cultivates the full intellectual, moral and spiritual development of young people as whole persons to appreciate beauty, goodness and truth and to act with integrity in life.”
Colvert spent his first months doing a feasibility study with Father Illo to determine “whether there would be enough interest to reopen the school” with a classical Catholic curriculum model. They found there was, but initial enrollment would likely be small. His proposal was to start the academy as a K-2 program.
COVID-19 had a hand in influencing the trajectory of the school’s development.
The parish’s popular preschool, which had continued running after the 2019 closure of the elementary school, temporarily suspended operations in November 2020. Fearful parents caused enrollment to plummet.
“When that happened, Father Illo decided we should integrate what we were doing with the preschool with our efforts to open K-2,” said Colvert. He and his team began speaking with families.
What they heard from families was both encouraging and disconcerting. The school size was too limiting, especially to some larger families.
“They would tell us, ‘Yes, we are very interested in what you are doing, but we have older children too,’” he said.
With Father Illo’s encouragement, the “bold decision” was made in January 2021 to accept applications for preschool through eighth grade.
By March 2021, Stella Maris had 25 students enrolled. The Department of Catholic Schools approved opening in August for the 2021-22 academic year.
Families slowly began to enroll, right up until weeks before classes started on Aug. 23. The inaugural class included formerly home-schooled students, students from public schools and to a lesser degree, students transferring from other local Catholic schools.
The school building had been rented out after the 2019 closure of the K-8 school, Colvert said. The school had only three-and-a-half weeks after the tenant left to transform the old setting into one that mirrored the curriculum.
“It’s now a small, San Francisco gem,” he said, noting the placement of artwork throughout. “Truth, goodness and beauty hopefully emanate from these walls, not just the books and the curriculum.”
While the eventual goal is individual grades, Colvert said, current students are in combined classrooms of about six to eight students. The school has a staff of 10. All are experienced and/or trained at the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education in Ventura, California.
“We have a full staff operating a complete program,” he said, which includes language arts, including grammar, logic and rhetoric and the study of Latin; music and the arts; and an integrated Catholic education that shapes virtue.
When asked what full capacity for the school could be, he said the school is being “intentional and cautious” about its growth.
Classes could likely to grow to 20-25 students, he said, but “we don’t want the school to grow so large that we have double of every class. We don’t want to dilute our mission.”
“Father Illo is fully committed to the idea of making Catholic education at Star of the Sea Parish possible for any family in the city or outside it who wants the kind of classical, integrated curriculum we offer,” said Colvert.
Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone’s support has been essential to the opening of Stella Maris. In an introductory letter on its website at stellamarissf.org, the archbishop said he is “convinced that classical education holds out the greatest hope for our children’s future flourishing and for renewal of church life.”
His support helped Father Illo secure $400,000 in financial assistance from benefactors equally committed to classical Catholic education.
Colvert said some families can afford to pay a full tuition. Others, including lower-income families or those with several children, “would otherwise be unable to afford a Catholic education” without scholarships.
“Father is committed to move heaven and earth for families to be here,” he said. A school is a business, he admitted, but business is not its mission. “The most important thing we do is helping kids get to heaven.”
Christina Gray is lead writer, Catholic San Francisco, [email protected]