A Shining Light

Feb. 26-March 3, 04
A Shining Light
By Kristen Fox / SUN  Staff Writer
SUN photo(s) Paul Finch
Sister helps students at Cathedral School discover their goodness

When people enter Cathedral School in Syracuse, they can tell what drives its principal Sister Donna Smith, DC, to make Cathedral an inner-city gem –– the students. There are pictures of all of the children, whom Sister Donna photographed herself, hanging in the hallways. Their colorful pictures and projects are proudly displayed on the walls and tables for all to admire. “The kids like seeing their pictures and work,” Sister Donna said. “It makes them feel good about themselves.”

Sister Donna loves her students. She is a remarkable administrator who shapes the way they learn, grow and feel about themselves. She makes time for students, frequently popping into classrooms to say hello and leading a daily prayer service each morning. She even knows each of the 80 students by name –– along with their bumps and bruises. “How is your head feeling today?” she asked one student who recently scraped her head in an accident at home. “I get worried when they leave school. I know that when they are here we can keep them safe,” she added.

The students return her love. Sister Donna is the principal kids love to hug. The children gravitate to her; she cannot get down the hallway without a student flashing her a bright smile or running up to her for a warm embrace. “There has been a positive difference in the school,” said third grade teacher Diane Branish of Sister Donna’s arrival. “What she preaches to the students about respect, love and kindness is how she acts. The kids pick up on this.”

It is hard to believe that the sister who the children and staff are so fond of did not intend to become a nun. It was something that she pondered for years following her graduation from high school in her native Pennsylvania, but she wasn’t sure if it was the right choice. “I was on the fence about it; I knew I had to jump off one way or another,” Sister Donna said. She found that she could not ignore the call from God. Sister Donna joined the Daughters of Charity, making her first vows in July of 1986.

She knew from experience working at Catholic Charities prior to joining the community that she wanted to work with children. “I am drawn to kids,” she said. “There is goodness in each of them that needs to be built up.” The small-town sister has done many big things for schools in the Bronx, Delaware and, currently, in Syracuse. Each new experience has taught her something about working with children. Sister Donna called one of her first assignments in the Bronx “a terrifying, but wonderful experience.” She spent six-and-a-half years at St. Joseph’s School in Harlem teaching various classes and extracurricular activities, such as coaching basketball. The city, she said, was a completely new environment and frightening at times. “I had never experienced any place like New York City before,” she remarked. But her time there gave her a good idea of what to expect at similar inner-city schools. “God called me to St. Joseph’s, but at first I didn’t know why,” she said. “It gave me a good education in how to help children from many different cultures, and I learned to listen to the children. If you do, they will help you understand what they are going through and how you can help them.”

Wherever she serves, Sister Donna’s mission is to try and empower each student. “Many kids who attend inner-city school are kids who need a chance,” she said. “Every child deserves an opportunity for a good education.” Since arriving at Cathedral, which serves kindergarten through sixth grade, Sister Donna has embraced its students. She helps the children, some from low-income families, overcome the obstacles that they have been dealt and develop not only academically but also emotionally and spiritually. “Once you build reading and writing skills you start to work on other things,” stated Sister Donna.

Cathedral boasts a strong character development program, begun by Branish and fourth grade teacher Mimi Rudy. Since 2001, the school has operated with a “word for the week.” The students take the designated word, which ties into an aspect of character development, and apply it to their actions. “Sister Donna was instrumental in the program,” explained Branish. “She supported us in the whole thing.” For example, the word might be “respect,” pointed out Branish. Teachers incorporate the word in the classroom, reading the children books relating to showing respect and getting children thinking about how they can show it. Branish has noticed that the program has boosted the confidence of all the children in the school. “Their attitudes are changing a lot,” she said. “They feel good about themselves. They enjoy coming to school.”

Sister Donna is seeing the results of strong academics and character development. Recent state test scores showed a significant upswing in the percentage of students who passed. She is characteristically modest about the role she has played in Cathedral’s success, but equally optimistic about the school’s future and the future of its students. “We will keep building the kids up and wait for the light to go off,” said Sister Donna. “If you start at a young age, it will work.”

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