Two weeks ago Wallace Harvey, the stepfather of St. Columbkille School fourth grade student Brianna Maiden, motioned toward the front of his daughter’s school and said to Anna-Maria Rios, principal, “It’s like going to Beverly Hills or Laguna Beach.” Clearly in awe at the total transformation of his daughter’s school, Mr. Harvey said, “I just love the front of our school. It’s so beautiful!”Those few words expressed the thoughts of many other parents and students as they began the new school year. They visited and walked through the totally transformed 88-year-old school building. Thanks to the hard work and assistance of many, notably the John and Dorothy Shea Foundation, St. Columbkille School opened the new school year to the delight of students, parents and teachers.“It has brought out hope in the parents,” says Rios. “Here, where they live, this, too, can be their reality — a good school — and the hope of betterment for their children.” “It is an inspiration for the teachers, too. All their hard work has been a shot in the arm. They were like kids when they walked into the rooms for the first time. You can literally see the new life that has been given to them.”For a school that holds bake sale after bake sale just to afford a single field trip, where faculty members coach sports and their relatives volunteer their time, the transformation of St. Columbkille School is a dream come true.During the summer, classroom and office walls were in many cases gutted in order to re-wire the school. Fragile and/or non-working electrical lines were all replaced. The school interior and exterior was painted. For the first time carpeting was placed in all classrooms and new and more efficient lighting fixtures were installed in classrooms and offices. All of the school’s doors were replaced, and new landscaping accentuated a return to the old school entrance. (About 30 years ago the entrance had been walled off to create an office space.) “Safety was such a huge concern for us,” says Karla Briceno, former principal and the school’s new director of development and marketing. “The dream for renovation of the school has been at least 12 years in process.” She credits former pastor Msgr. Tim Dyer and Kevin Baxter, her predecessor as principal, and now superintendent of Elementary Schools for the archdiocese, with supporting the dream for a dramatic makeover for the school (built in 1923), and the John and Dorothy Shea Foundation for making their dream a reality. St. Columbkille School officials also give much credit to the parents. Not long ago parishioner Isidro Cardenas, a landscaper, came forward and offered to train parents to help landscape the front of the school, thinking that at least the exterior yard space could be improved. The parents removed old cement, put in new sod, and had started to lay the bricks for the walkway when, tragically, Cardenas and his wife were killed in an auto accident. The school was stunned, having lost a wonderful parent, friend and their inspiration. But they responded resolutely. “The parents really took ownership,” says Briceno. “Mr. Cardenas’ death was hard to accept, but it motivated the parents to continue.”Parents and supporters completed the landscaping at the front entrance, and the school will soon place a plaque at the front of school in honor of the parents.Briceno, having been principal for eight years at St. Columbkille, feels a special kinship and obligation to the parish she loves. She and a sister both attended sister-parish Nativity School because St. Columbkille was at capacity, and their brother attended St. Columbkille. “This is where we always worshipped,” she says, noting that she and her family moved into the parish 28 years ago. “I taught religious education here, confirmed here and made my quinceanera here. I love the community, the people we serve and the sense of family that is here. The people take care of each other, support each other here. It’s really community. It’s home.Briceno’s mother has been the school secretary and bookkeeper for the past 18 years. Her brother coaches football. “I love the fact that people really appreciate what you do,” she adds. “I think it is part of a humbleness that you find here at St. Columbkille that I really value. It’s who the people are as well.” As new principal, Rios sees the need to continue the legacy begun by the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur who first opened the school (four Sisters of Notre Dame still volunteer in the school). “I feel honored to be part of that line started by the Sisters of Notre Dame,” she says. “It’s kind of the next chapter of their history, and it is also continuing on because of the kind of support we received from the Sheas.” Last year 82 percent of St. Columbkille students qualified for free and reduced lunches. The school has many needs, clearly, but there is so much more for which the school parents and students are grateful.“St. Columbkille is here to instill the values that as Catholics we believe in so much,” says Briceno. “St. Columbkille gives them a safe place, a nurturing place, a great education that will give them the opportunity to be successful in life, to give back to their community, and to give the children a fighting chance. That’s why we are important and that’s why it has been here for so long.”{gallery width=100 height=100}gallery/2011/0902/columbkille/{/gallery}