As a principal, Jamie Bescak is a far cry from what Catholic grade school students 50 years ago remember – dour nuns who freely used rulers to keep their charges in line.
A mom as well as the seventh principal to lead St. John Bosco Catholic School in Ahwatukee, Bescak is neither dour nor likely to find many – if any – rulers around the campus.
As St. John Bosco celebrates its 20th anniversary, it’s a 21st century Catholic school and she’s a 21st century principal.
Consider the school’s quick pivot to online learning when the pandemic shuttered campuses throughout Arizona in March 2020.
“We were able to get online right away that March and they had full instruction for their core classes – math, language arts. They got a little bit of social studies and science in there and they got their religion too,” Bescak said.
“Our teachers were able to still execute what was supposed to be taught to those kids at the end of the year. So, they didn’t really miss too much academically. They missed a lot of fun. They missed the in-person stuff….We were able to direct and instruct and those kids were so wonderful and very tech savvy.”
A product of Catholic schools throughout her years as a student in her native Ohio, Bescak is in her seventh year at St, John Bosco.
To say she’s worn many hats - often at the same time – is an understatement.
After 20 years as a teacher in Mesa Public Schools district, Bescak started as a third-grade teacher at St. John Bosco.
She quickly added reading specialist to her duties.
Then she taught kindergarten, simultaneously taking on the role of preschool director and after-school supervisor.
“And then a year later, they just kept adding on more things,” she said with a laugh, “where I became a facility supervisor, developing and marketing. And then basically, it was really whatever the principal wanted or needed…And then, she retired and in the spring of last year, I interviewed and applied for the position of principal.”
Bescak also is a school mom: Because Gilbert has no Catholic grade school, Bescak enrolled her daughter in St. John Bosco’s preschool program when she got her first job there. Today, she is a sixth grader.
The school got off to a rather inauspicious start when it opened 20 years ago.
Pat Sdao, its first principal, recalls how she was ready to welcome students after a year of doing everything from helping to guide the construction committee to recruiting students and teachers.
But opening day was Sept. 11, 2001.
And while the Phoenix Diocese decided to keep schools opened, Sdao wasn’t about to let that happen on her watch.
“I thought to myself, ‘It’s the first day of school. These kids don’t even know their teachers. They don’t really know the other kids. I thought ‘if it was my kid, I would want to be with my kid.’ So, when parents would come to drop their kids off, I told them to keep going, told them what happened and just don’t drop their child off,” Sdao recalled.
“I just start calling them and telling them that we can keep them if necessary,” said Sdao, who retired after the school’s first full year of operation. “I told them, ‘I’ll be there. There will be some teachers there so they wouldn’t be there by themselves.’ But I thought parents would want to be with their kids. And you know, every last parent appreciated that.”
Just as America survived that horrific day, St. John Bosco has thrived, drawing many students from as far away as Gilbert.
The Pre-K-8 private school prides itself on academic excellence, boasting that 99 percent of its graduates get into the first choice of a high school.
Building on a foundation initially laid down by Sdao and others who worked with four East Valley parishes to establish the school, it is St. John Bosco is far removed from the kind of Catholic grade school that Sdao recalled growing up in when she was a youngster in Detroit.
“The old nuns in my day were such disciplinarians,” Sdao said. “But the only thing is, they really prepared you for college. If you were going to go to college, man, you knew how to write.”
And Bescak added that even though St. John Bosco is light years’ ahead in technology from what she was exposed to as a Catholic elementary student, “the mission is the same: We are an extension of the church.”
That means weekly mass for the entire student body at adjacent St. Benedict’s, catechism instruction, a chapel used often by teachers and students alike.
With a faculty of about 25 teachers and an enrollment of 366 students, St. John Bosco also has at least one staffer who was on hand when it all began.
Librarian Theresa Harvey started as a fourth grade teacher at St. John Bosco when Sdao opened its doors.
Both women recalled how a group of parents, educators and priests had planned for years to open a school in Ahwatukee because there was no Catholic grade school.
At the time it started with 251 students, St. John Bosco was an “interparish school” because it drew financial and spiritual support from four Catholic parishes – St. Benedict and Corpus Christi in Ahwatukee, St. Andrew the Apostle in Chandler and Holy Spirit in Tempe.
Now, it is a ministry solely of St. Benedict Church.
“These parishes started years before the school was built,” Harvey recalled. “They really worked hard. They called people. They started this campaign to raise money and then it came to fruition. The parishioners of all four parishes really came together and really worked as a community to build it and stock it with books and things like that.”
Dotted by trees that have matured over the last two decades, the campus was laid out with plenty of outdoor space and classrooms run off outdoor corridors.
That layout made it far easier than most private or public schools for St. John Bosco to offer in-person learning when the 2020-21 school year began since various grades could learn outdoors.
As Bescak continues to build like her predecessors on the foundation Sdao helped develop, the school draws its support from both tuition and an active body of parents.
“We do have tremendous technology here because our parents are so generous with our fundraising,” Bescak said. “For our annual gala that happens in the spring every year, we were able to raise virtually just last year about $70,000…We just purchased all the new Chromebooks for our teachers. This year, every year we’re doing something to upgrade our technology and our curriculum.”
And Bescak said she plans to be there for those and other celebrations in years ahead.
“So my plan is,” she said, “I’m their seventh principal and it’s the 20th year. I hope to be here for 20 years before I retire.”