By Arlene Edmonds

Special to The CS&T

PHILADELPHIA – The 30 kindergarten students at St. Athanasius-Immaculate Conception School in the city’s West Oak Lane section are high energy and eager. Walk into the orderly classroom and you will know that a Christ-centered education is being delivered here. The respectful young pupils sit on the floor mat ready to share why they love their teacher, the new things they’ve learned that day and the prayers they say with their teacher. They readily sing from their spiritual repertoire of songs.

During the “free” period when the youngest students and teaching assistant Deborah Booth are away, the classroom is still filled with children. These are the former kindergarteners who are in third, fourth and other grades. Their former kindergarten teacher still connects with them through a writing club. Those who love to write, or others who may need assistance with the art, come back to their old classroom to get what they need.

It is little wonder why kindergarten teacher Olenka Zajac was among those recognized with a certificate of recognition from the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA). Though she was not among the finalists, those in the St. Athanasius School community believe that Zajac needs to be saluted for her 23 years of quality service to the school.

In fact, the entire parish will be celebrating Zajac’s unique educational gifts at a special presentation during Catholic Schools Week on Wednesday, Jan. 28.

“This is just a great school to work in,” said Zajac, who earned her early education degree from Chestnut Hill College and her master’s degree from Arcadia University. “The students and other staff make this an enjoyable place to work. The kids are eager beavers who want to learn and enjoy expanding. Whether we are doing phonics or arithmetic, their minds are wide open. I am just amazed at what they can do.”

Zajac added that she particularly likes to share her Catholic faith with her students. Recently, she introduced the kindergarteners to the sacraments. When they discussed baptism she shared videos and other visuals about young children getting baptized as well as Jesus’ baptism. She asked them to bring in photographs of their own baptism or to explain what they knew about baptism.

“They just love to ask questions and share what they know and believe,” Zajac said.

One of the partners that Zajac has found helpful in the educational process has been the MERIT Center. The teacher said that they have offered their expertise in teacher development. She, like her students, welcomes continuing her education.

Sister Joan Alminde, S.S.J., principal of the school, is quick to add that the Philadelphia School District has recognized Zajac’s educational talents. They have videotaped her teaching at the school to show to their student teachers and new teachers. She is often called upon to give educational workshops and over the years has mentored many less experienced teachers.

“Olenka is so humble about all that she has done,” said Sister Joan, who has been at the school for 21 years. “She is truly a beautiful person who loves children. It’s unbelievable all the things that she has done for the students. She is dedicated, which is evident by the fact that she teaches the students during her lunchtime, has helped students put together a newspaper and keeps helping the students in different ways long after they’ve left her classroom.”

School librarian Sister Arleen McNicholas has also been at St. Athanasius for 21 years. She said that when Zajac brings her students to the library they are well behaved and attentive.

Recent lessons have utilized the Smart Board, which students use in their kindergarten classroom, and focused on the legacy of the civil rights movement. The students discussed Rosa Parks and the Montgomery bus boycott, as well as the life of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The students also developed skits where they portrayed the staff members of the school.

Sister Joan further pointed out that this is the type of energy that extends throughout the school including those who attend their state-of-the-art science center, visit the weekly Mass, or walk through the school’s immaculate hallways. Consequently, many of the teachers have been there for two decades or more.

Besides Zajac, third grade teacher Susan O’Brien has been at the school 23 years, fifth grade teacher Margaret Roth just celebrated 20 years, eighth grade teacher Jane Bonner marked 21 years this year. In addition, the computer and art instructor, Margaret McFadden, has been at the school for 22 years. The other teachers have been at the school for a combined total of nearly 40 years.

“We are truly a team here,” said Sister Alminde. “We really have creative and innovative teachers. When we all heard that Olenka was recognized we were all happy for her, because she is part of this special team. We are just blessed at this school.”

Arlene Edmonds is a freelance writer and St. Raymond of Penafort parishioner. She may be reached at