Wearing a tie and a name tag that said "alumni," Brooks Brawner, 14, stood smiling in the gymnasium of St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic School in Hampden on Nov. 8, giving tours at an open house for prospective parents.
The Hampden teen, now a freshman at Loyola Blakefield High School, still remembered the feelings of uncertainty he faced as a fifth grader in 2010, at a time when the Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore was closing 13 of its schools in the Baltimore area to save money and St. Thomas Aquinas was considered on the bubble.
"A lot of people were worried," Brawner said. He said he was never so happy as when then-Principal Sister Marie Rose Gustatus, now retired, announced over the public address system that the longtime neighborhood school had survived.
Volunteers like Brawner and Jacob Stahl, now at Calvert Hall High School, were quick to sign up to help out at the open house.
"I volunteered because this place meant so much to me," he said.
"He contacted the school and asked if he could help," said Bonnie Russo, a spokeswoman for the school.
The dust from consolidation of archdiocesan schools has long settled. Now, as St. Thomas Aquinas prepares for its 140th anniversary and Homecoming Celebration on Saturday, Nov. 16, the school of 130 students is making strides in enrollment. It has taken in students from Mount Washington's Shrine of the Sacred Heart and other closed Catholic schools, and embarked on an aggressive marketing campaign under second-year Principal Gary Rand II.
"We're in good shape," Rand said as he supervised the open house and took every opportunity to speak with parents and answer their questions. This is the first year in the past five that St. Thomas Aquinas has been able to meet its enrollment goals, he said.
"We've added a new marketing approach, giving individual tours," Rand said, adding pointedly, "I'm leading the tours."
Rand said the school is also "tracking" families that show interest in enrolling their children.
Not that Jailin Opher and his family needed much convincing Thursday.
St. Thomas Aquinas "seemed like a good place to be. It's a really good school" said Opher, 12, who is currently an eighth grader at Cross Country Elementary School in Mount Washington.
Jailin's mother, Ashley Grant, and grandfather, Howard Grant, were with him as he toured the school, sucking a lollipop.
"He's coming. It's definite," said his mother. "If it takes my last dollar, he's coming."
Public school would be free, but the family is willing to sacrifice, said Howard Grant, a security guard at Roland Park Place and a server at the Hopkins Club.
"It's not going to be easy, but we'll do it," he said. "It's (Jailin's) future."
Saturday's homecoming celebration will include a special Mass at St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church, as well special recognition of distinguished alumni, such as Mary Ellen Barbera, chief Judge of the Maryland Court of Appeals; Carol "Sue" Abromaitis, head of the English Department at Loyola University Maryland; and some of the area's School Sisters of Notre Dame.
The open house was a testament to exactly the kind of "stable environment" that Ashley Grant said she sought for Jailin. Sitting at a table in the gym in case of questions were Title I teacher Phil Turner and guidance counselor Devyn Milanese.
"I'm a friendly face," Milanese said.
Parents and their children trickled steadily into the gym, many leaning toward enrolling their children there.
"I like the idea of smaller class sizes and the traditions," said Katie Feldman, of Medfield, whose 5-year-old son, Weiler, will be a first-grader this fall. "I was raised a Catholic," she said, "and I like the sense of community that everyone knows everyone."
Three-year-old Jesse Mixon came with his parents, Loria and Jesse Mixson Sr., who are getting a healthy start on finding a school for their son.
"We're getting serious about it," said Mixson, a retired chief equipment operator for the U.S. Navy.
Rand, 38, who commutes from Frederick, said the goal of the open house was "to get the message out about how great we are."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun