Students gain insight into state government during Catholic Schools Day in Olympia

  • Written by Nathan Whalen
  • Published in Local
Lt. Gov. Cyrus Habib, a St. James Cathedral parishioner, poses with students during Catholic Schools Day January 30. Photo: Vireak Ath Lt. Gov. Cyrus Habib, a St. James Cathedral parishioner, poses with students during Catholic Schools Day January 30. Photo: Vireak Ath

OLYMPIAStudents from Catholic schools around the archdiocese — and even one school in Spokane — spent a day in Olympia visiting their lawmakers and learning more about legislation to improve school safety.

“It’s exciting to just be here,” said MaryAnna Joyce, an eighth-grader at All Saints School in Puyallup, who was visiting the Capitol for the first time.

The occasion was Catholic Schools Day at the Legislature, a January 30 event organized by the Washington State Catholic Conference. The day was among activities at Catholic schools around the archdiocese to mark Catholic Schools Week, a nationwide celebration from January 27 to February 2.

“We wanted to continue to share the good news of Catholic schools with policymakers,” said Joe Sprague, executive director of the Washington State Catholic Conference.

Washington’s Catholic schools — 100 schools with 28,000 students — are equivalent to the fifth-largest school district in the state and save taxpayers more than $300 million a year, according to Sprague. Catholic schools have a 98 percent graduation rate, with more than 80 percent of graduates continuing on to college.

Students meet key leaders

During their four-hour visit to Olympia, students met with key leaders, including Chris Reykdal, superintendent of public instruction; Lt. Gov. Cyrus Habib, who is a parishioner at St. James Cathedral; and Sen. Lisa Wellman, chair of the Early Learning and K-12 Education committee.

Reykdal and Wellman each highlighted education proposals being considered this session, including school-safety measures. Reykdal said the bulk of proposed education legislation involves students’ mental health including how to intervene when a student is struggling, in a way that balances medical privacy with school safety.

Habib told students about his job as lieutenant governor — working on the state’s international relations, serving as president of the Senate (and being the tie-breaking vote), and serving as acting governor when Gov. Jay Inslee travels out of state.

He also talked about losing his eyesight to cancer when he was in the third grade, but how that didn’t stop him from completing law school, becoming a professor and being elected to state office.

“If you work hard and have faith and have good people around you who support you, then you can overcome any obstacle,” he told the students.

Kriston Dixon, SuperintendentKristin Dixon, the Archdiocese of Seattle’s superintendent of Catholic schools, testifies about Senate Bill 5514, a proposal to notify all schools, public and private, when there is a nearby emergency. Photo: Vireak Ath

Find a passion and follow it

The day also included meetings with legislators (or their staff members) representing the students’ local communities.

Danielle Westbrook, legislative assistant to Rep. Beth Doglio of the 22nd District, met with students Holy Family School in Lacey and St. Michael School in Olympia. She encouraged students to get involved — whether participating in politics through Young Democrats or Young Republicans, or volunteering with an organization.

“Go out and find something that you’re passionate about and do it,” Westbrook said.

Students asked a variety of questions of their state leaders. Jackson Hallett, a seventh-grader at St. Frances Cabrini School in Lakewood, asked Habib about working with other countries, Wellman about her schedule and Reykdal about helping homeless students.

Julie Kelly, eighth-grade homeroom teacher at All Saints, said participating in Catholic Schools Day allowed her students to see how the state leadership team works, “enabling the entire class to be leaders of the school.”

School safety hearing

Later in the day, students sat in on a meeting of Wellman’s committee, which included a hearing on Senate Bill 5514 — a proposal to notify all schools, public and private, when there is an event requiring a lockdown or evacuation.

“Principals need to have first responder information. Right now, we don’t,” Kristin Dixon, the archdiocese’s superintendent of Catholic schools, said before the hearing.

In her testimony during the hearing, Dixon related a story about a 2012 incident while she was principal of Our Lady of Guadalupe School in West Seattle. A gunman was in the area, but instead of being notified by law enforcement, Dixon had to rely on word-of-mouth and a local blog to learn about the situation and take steps to protect the school’s approximately 300 students and staff.

“As many private school principals learn, when the helicopters are overhead, something is happening,” Dixon’s prepared testimony read. “All school administrators must have the best possible information in order to make informed decisions allowing for the activation of practiced safety procedures.”

Sprague said the Washington State Catholic Conference will continue advocating on legislation affecting Catholic schools.