Each day on their way to classes, St. Francis de Sales Catholic Academy students, in neat uniforms, pass under an inscription from their school’s saintly namesake. “Be who you are and be that well.”
“That’s kind of the guiding principle here at the school,” explains Principal Christopher Sharbach. “God gives us all special skills and talents. All we ask is that you give us your best.”
Each day he makes sure students, educators and staff, have what they need to be their best. No detail is too small for his patient, calm attention.
“St. Francis was a doctor of the church,” he notes. Indeed, Francis is one of 36 saints whose doctrinal writings hold special authority in the Roman Catholic Church. Born in 1567 at Chateau de Sales, near Geneva, Switzerland, he earned a doctorate in law, went on to follow the religious life, and later became Bishop of Geneva. In 1608, his most famous book, “Introduction to the Devout Life,” was written not just for the clergy and religious, but to reach ordinary lay people.
Principal Sharbach and his complement of 32 full-time teachers, 18 support staff and ten Department of Education special education providers are dedicated to following Francis’ example. Quoting the academy’s mission statement, he says, “Our school family is committed to academic excellence, Christian service to others, and to providing a Christ-centered, safe and engaging environment where students can grow spiritually and academically.”
Opened in 1913, St. Francis has been a Belle Harbor fixture ever since. The original school building is still in use, along with others added in the 1940s and 1960s. “This has always been a strong school,” Sharbach says. “And a large school, with about 700 students at times.”
Covering pre-K to 8th grade, it now boasts 621 pupils. “We had 512 when I became principal.”
A NET tv network segment last year spotlighting St. Francis, noting, amidst diminishing enrollments and schools closing, they’re bucking the trend. Their numbers are increasing. They even have a waiting list at various grade levels.
“I come from a family of educators,” Sharbach said. “Father, aunts, uncles, grandfathers. So, it was always there.” Though he went to college for accounting, after doing several internships, he says, “I found accounting to be boring. It just doesn’t have the same level of fulfillment.”
Seeing how much his family gave as teachers, he turned to education. “I taught for five years at St. Rose of Lima, teaching 7th and 8th graders, Math and Science.” At the same time, he was able to learn about Rockaway and build a foundation that would serve him later.
After a stint as Assistant Principal at Douglaston’s Divine Wisdom Catholic Academy, he took over at St. Francis in 2013. “It was a difficult time, right after Hurricane Sandy.”
As he got the school on solid footing and oversaw building and classroom technology improvements, enrollment increased. As St. Francis de Sales Academy was thriving, another challenge arose: the pandemic. It was yet another test challenge for Sharbach, the school, and the community.
Sharbach says it helps that St. Francis can draw upon a unique community.
“One thing that makes us really special is our sense of community. That goes out to the Rockaway community as well. This is a family. We really stress that here.”
Citing events like their Easter Egg Hunt and Polar Express Night, he points to very strong family involvement. “We have parents who are very helpful. They really make things run.”
With students ranging from 3 years-old to age 14 going from grade to grade together, it’s also not unusual for siblings, older and younger, to attend school together. “The majority of families are here with us for at least eight to nine years. We’ve had some families here for 20 years. We have some 4th generation students here. We’ve had grandparents here.”
That sense of community spreads throughout the school and beyond. Older students will often help out younger ones. When two new families arrived from war-torn Ukraine, some students gave them their toys because they knew their new classmates had none.
In the neighborhood, Sharbach says people ask him “How’s your little Charlie?”, not just “’How’s your boy?’
“I guess any principal today wears many hats. Our job at St. Francis is to make our children academically strong, emotionally strong, physically strong and spiritually strong.”
Before setting out to attend the details of the new school day, even helping a teacher with an automobile issue, he reflects, “I’ve been blessed, blessed that I’ve been in Rockaway for 14 out of my 17 years as an educator.”
By Dan GuarinoBLOG COMMENTS POWERED BY DISQUS