In 1978, Patricia Cameron was given the job of creating a school and serving as its first leader, known as head of school. She had plenty of teaching experience, but had never taken on a task as daunting as this.
“I said to myself, ‘How in the world do you start a school?’” she said recently.
For 40 years, St. Stephen’s Episcopal School has bridged socioeconomic, geographic and racial barriers, and that’s just how Cameron envisioned it. The school, located on Front Street in Harrisburg, not only challenges students academically but also educates them about life in a diverse community.
As St. Stephen’s celebrates its four-decade anniversary, Cameron, now 92 years old, recounted that the school rose out of discussions between St. Stephen’s Episcopal Cathedral and local churches over how best to serve the local area.
“The national church has always been interested in education,” she said.
It took a year of planning to get the school up and running.
St. Stephen’s, which now educates preschool through eighth grade students, began with just 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds. The plan was to add classes above that age range when the 35 original students moved up—and it worked.
The road, of course, wasn’t without a few bumps.
“In the ‘70s, race was a very big issue, and some Southern churches were opening schools, unfortunately, as a flight from desegregation,” Cameron said. “We wanted to be exactly the opposite of that.”
Some of her ideas were met with resistance.
“There was indeed a great deal of pushback,” she said. “There always is a great deal of pushback against change.”
Despite this, enrollment quickly grew out of the original space—the cathedral’s Sunday school rooms and a tiny, windowless, L-shaped office that held just four employees.
Cameron’s husband, an architect, eyed up the cathedral-owned parking garage next door as an expansion option. In 2003, the first students moved into the new space, appropriately called the Cameron Building.
Lockers and classrooms with smart boards now occupy the area where cars once were parked. An atrium joins the exterior wall of the cathedral and the new school. The bright space radiates the aura of a link between past and present.
City as Classroom
The St. Stephen’s of today remains true to Cameron’s original, 1970s vision.
“St. Stephen’s is a true microcosm of the Harrisburg area,” said Ellen Hartman, who began last year as the fifth head of school.
The school’s makeup—40 percent black, 40 percent white and 20 percent representing other races—has remained consistent over its four decades.
“It’s diverse without trying to be,” said Liz Kerr, an alumnus whose son attends the first grade.
When Kerr attended, her classroom was full of kids of different backgrounds, she said. As a child, she didn’t realize the significance of that, but appreciates it today as she makes decisions about her own children’s education.
Susan Watson echoed Kerr’s sentiments.
She attended St. Stephen’s from 1985 to 1992 and, today, her daughter Midori attends third grade. Reflecting back, she said she recognizes that she received an excellent education, an acceptance of people different than herself, and a sense of civic responsibility.
“I want [my daughter] to relive what I remember fondly of my years there,” she said.
Another constant over 40 years: the school’s participation in city life. Students walk to the Dauphin County Library for library time, the YMCA for physical education and the State Museum of Pennsylvania for field trips. During recess, they cross the street to romp in Riverfront Park along the banks of the Susquehanna.
“Students learn how to be woven into the fabric of the city,” Hartman said. “Part of our culture is the city as the classroom, and you clean it up because it’s your classroom, and you give back to the people in it because it’s a part of your world.”
Environmental education, in fact, has always been a hallmark of the school.
Since the early days, students have participated in overnight trips to Pine Grove Furnace State Park and other local state parks. The new building received LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification, obtaining a silver-rated green building status. The school was environmentally friendly “before it was hip,” Hartman said.
More Like Family
Through its 40 years, a strong bond has developed between students and their school. Former students return regularly to see the building and talk about old times, Hartman said.
“Students don’t leave St. Stephen’s—in a way, they stay,” said Dan Burke, a 30-year veteran teacher. “It’s more like a family than a school.”
Staff returns, as well.
Ruth Graffius began as a parent of a student, taught for 14 years, became head of school for nine years and now teaches kindergarten. This commitment is typical of people involved at St. Stephen’s, she said.
“Our mission really has not changed,” she said. “Overall, we really are the same as we were in 1978.”
Since the beginning, St. Stephen’s Cathedral also has played an integral role in the school.
Students attend chapel weekly, evidenced recently by a plastic dinosaur stashed on the leading of a 19th-century stained-glass window. Parishioners assist in a myriad of ways from making repairs to becoming a “pizza angel”—sponsoring kids who can’t afford pizza on pizza day. Hartman calls the dedicated group of volunteers the “dream team.”
With the help of many and despite the challenges, Cameron created a school that has endured.
“She had the vision, the grit, to make it happen,” said Hartman.
Though the world has changed much over 40 years and the building has been transformed, the foundational mission of St. Stephen’s has remained.
“The key vision [Cameron] had is still being carried out,” Hartman said. “And it was a good one.”
St. Stephen’s Episcopal School is located at 215 N. Front St., Harrisburg. For more information, call 717-238-8590 or visit www.sseschool.org.