By Maryalene Laponsie. Photography by Eric Tank. This article originally appeared in the October 2019 issue of FAITH Grand Rapids magazine.
Whether they come by bus or car, students at St. Patrick School in Parnell are greeted by the same sight each morning. Principal Scott Czarnopys, often accompanied by Father Tom Cavera, is out front waiting for them. He shakes their hands, listens to their news and waves to their parents as they drive away.
It’s been a daily ritual for Scott since he took over as head of the country school nine years ago. In a world of fist bumps and high fives, he wants have a moment of more meaningful connection with each and every student. That means shaking hands, making eye contact and ensuring everyone who walks through the doors feels welcome.
“That’s 100% the best part of the day,” Scott explains. He calls it “Parnell hospitality.” He is outside greeting students and families in rain or shine, snow or sleet.
However, looking back at his youth, the 38-year old principal and father of two says it’s only by the grace of God that he made his way to rural Kent County.
‘A moral foundation’
Scott is the youngest of three children. Raised on the west side of Grand Rapids, he attended Holy Spirit School. After some tumultuous years, his parents divorced when he was in fifth grade.
“I wanted to nothing to do with school,” he remembers. It wasn’t until adulthood that he came to appreciate the lessons he couldn’t help but learn from his time at the Catholic elementary school. “It provided a moral foundation,” he says. “I knew right from wrong.”
That didn’t mean he was inclined to stay out of trouble though. On the contrary, his four years at Union High School were notable for his efforts to skip class and scrape by with barely passing grades.
It’s not the idealized youth we’re accustomed to envisioning for school and faith leaders. However, the Lord takes imperfect people and uses them for his work. Once he graduated high school, Scott headed to Grand Rapids Community College where he decided that rather than avoiding school, he was ready to embrace it.
After two years at community college, Scott transferred to Grand Valley State University and entered an education program. He wasn’t the first member of his family to decide to teach. His mother is a middle school science teacher and his older sister serves as a public school principal.
“My whole goal was to get through college and work at a low socioeconomic school,” Scott says. He envisioned himself at an urban school where he could help children who may be dealing with the same struggles and attitudes he had encountered.
While he wishes he could say that it was a faith decision to pursue a career in Catholic education, Scott says it was a more practical consideration that led to a job with a diocesan school. “As a young man, you’re just trying to make it,” he says. “You get out of school with all these student loans, and you need to pay the bills.”
His graduation coincided with the start of last decade’s economic downturn. Jobs were hard to come by. He flitted between some short-term assignments at public schools before landing a full-time position at Sacred Heart School in Grand Rapids. A year later, he moved to Immaculate Heart of Mary (IHM) School in Grand Rapids.
Three years later, he got the call from God to go to St. Patrick in Parnell.
‘The biggest God moment of my life’
Scott says he had no intention of applying for the position of principal at St. Patrick School. The P-8 school, which has an Ada address and falls within the Lowell public school district, is located at a crossroads surrounded by fields and cows. With dwindling enrollment at the time, many believed it was only a year or two away from being shuttered.
Despite his reluctance, a fellow teacher at IHM saw the potential there for Scott. She encouraged him again and again to apply for the open position. “I ignored it. I ignored it. I ignored it,” Scott recalls. However, when his colleague recommended him to Father Mark Peacock, then pastor of St. Patrick Parish, Scott felt obligated to arrange a visit.
“At that time, I simply did it out of professional courtesy,” he says. But once he got to Parnell, everything changed. “I never felt so accepted as I did here,” Scott recalls. “I think me coming to St. Pat’s is the biggest God moment of my life.”
It seemed to be the hand of God that led his fellow teacher to see that Scott was meant to go to Parnell, and neither the school nor the principal have been the same since.
After his parents’ divorce, church seemed to fall by the wayside for Scott and his family. It wasn’t a particular focus of his early adulthood either, but his work at St. Patrick School has changed that. “Catholic education brought me back,” Scott says.
In the years since becoming principal, Scott has married. He and his wife, Arley, have two children, Haven and Daxton, both of whom are enrolled at St. Patrick School. He has rediscovered the early faith he was introduced to at Holy Spirit School and continues to grow in his love and understanding of God.
One perk of greeting students each morning is a half hour spent with the parish priest. When Scott first mentioned his plan to stand outside each morning, Father Mark Peacock was quick to join him. Last year, Father Tom Cavera took over as spiritual head of St. Patrick Parish, and he has gamely stepped into the role of morning greeter as well.
While waiting for children to arrive, Scott has the opportunity for meaningful discussions with a man who has dedicated his entire life to the Church. “That’s a sacred time,” says Scott. “I get every question answered.” The two men share a camaraderie that few can claim.
Scott is quick to point out that faith is always a work in progress. “You do have to trust in God to do this,” he says of both work and life. “You are going to make mistakes.”
A school revitalized
It isn’t just Scott’s faith that has come full circle. The same can be said for St. Patrick School.
The now 125-year-old school, which was teetering on the brink of closure, had only 70 students enrolled when Scott arrived in 2011. Today, it is bursting at the seams with a student body of 226 and plans to construct an addition for more classrooms as early as later this year.
The revitalization of the school is a testament to the faith and resiliency of the members of the St. Patrick community, Scott says. He notes that multiple generations have passed through the school doors. Along with newer members who recognize the specialness of this place, they weren’t going to let the school slip away in the midst of the recession.
“It’s about being part of a family,” Scott says. “It’s about values that go beyond academics.” He adds that he is simply the caretaker of a school that has been sustained by the prayers and generosity of a faith-filled community of believers.
While humble about his role, the people of Parnell would tell you St. Patrick School is in very good hands indeed.
Catholic schools in the Diocese of Grand Rapids are an alliance of 31 vibrant learning communities (26 elementary and five high schools) serving more than 6,340 preschool through 12th grade students throughout West Michigan. Our schools inspire young people to grow in Catholic faith and grace, achieve more in school and life, develop creativity and character, and feel welcomed and cherished for their unique gifts. We partner with parents to awaken the whole child to a world of light and life — that grows better and brighter when children reach their potential.