Why Our Family Left SDS
Our Experience at St. Dominic School
Our three children attended SDS beginning in preschool. By the time our oldest daughter was in 8th grade, we had been there for 10 years.
We were the school's biggest fans, and volunteered for everything. We helped with marketing, banners, mailers, websites, yearbooks, events, uniform sales, fundraisers, parties, room moms, PTG, landscaping, new equipment, updating the building, security measures – everything you can imagine.
What made SDS magical was the community. The amazing support from fellow families and the staff. The way everyone came together to create a wonderful experience for our children. Here is a glimpse into what we used to have: What Makes SDS Magic?
We never imagined we would leave, and we did not make the decision lightly. There were several factors that led to our decision.
1. Lack of Leadership
In March 2020 the world shut down for covid. The week SDS closed, I emailed the principal this question, “I’m wondering what the leadership plan is. Most certainly cases of covid will continue to grow, so at what point will Mass, assemblies, and stations be restored? What is the end game?”
There was no leadership, and no end game. Authorities kept everything closed despite knowing pretty quickly that the virus was not deadly to children. At least SDS opened for in-person instruction in October 2020, which was preferable to the total shutdown the public schools enforced. However, the unnecessary enforcement of distancing and mask-wearing was excessive and not supported by science. The staff at SDS was inordinately disciplinarian and eliminated core activities such as Faith Families and even limited the number of attendees at outdoor sporting events. This policy surpassed any public school restrictions or state requirements.
In a sickening display of manipulation, the bishop who governs the diocese stated, “the wearing of masks is a simple, sensible act of charity.” In February 2022, he even likened submitting to pandemic measures to Lenten sacrifice, considering it virtuous and a demonstration of faith. This was well after science showed the measures were unnecessary and even harmful to children. To this day, several SDS children and faculty members wear masks.
No courage was shown by those in charge who could have returned our children to a normal learning environment instead of robbing them of precious experiences, academic opportunities, and joyful memories that they never got to have. SDS staff clung to their masks and their fear, which will have a lifelong negative affect on the children who depended on them to show faith, bravery, and leadership.
2. Priorities Changed from Faith to Money
In June 2021, SDS and the diocese decided to start paying an out-of-state company to focus on data-mining to target wealthy families. While Catholic education depends on money to exist, at its core, it should not be a sales game. Targeted marketing is a factor, but the heart of SDS should be (and used to be) in relationships, community, faith. The new company focuses on engineering “perfect students” from wealthy families. This loses the magic of diversity and the influence of the Holy Spirit. The new focus is on “full pay” demographics, and not the heart. As the school fills with people who can pay top dollar but care nothing about the spirit of a Catholic education, the community will wither away. School leadership should seek families who value Christ in their lives, not just donors. Additionally, the PTG always raised funds to cover technology fees. One of the first decisions made by the incoming principal in the summer of 2021 was to impose these fees on parents.
3. Elimination of Parental Involvement
Prior to the new principal, Penny Ogden, who took over in the summer of 2021, parents were actively involved in all aspects of SDS, including volunteering in the classroom, creating yearbooks, updating the websites, handling social media, planning events, throwing fundraisers, uniform and gear sales, providing fun classroom experiences and treats – endless ways to be involved that people loved to be part of. Parents were also well informed about happenings at the school and were invited to participate and weigh in. After Ogden took over, important information was withheld, such as staff changes and fee increases, and parents were no longer included in decision-making. In fact, parents began to be monitored; no longer could volunteers even visit the school storage area alone; suddenly everyone had to be chaperoned. Communication from the front office significantly diminished. The yearbooks used to be robust, colorful, and full of memories, and now parents are no longer allowed to participate. (No yearbook has been provided for the 2021-22 school year.) For many years the graduation experience for the 8th graders included special traditions, such as a formal, surprise-themed awards luncheon, with keepsake gifts, hosted by the 7th graders and their parents, which has been reduced to a lesser event. Parents who offered to bring back the memorable occasion were told no.
4. Allowing and Encouraging Mental Illness
Before we left SDS, an alarming number of children were deciding they were genderless or the opposite of their actual gender. There was no leadership from staff or clergy, and this mental illness began spreading like a virus, even affecting the youngest and most vulnerable children. In fact, the front office agreed to start calling one young girl by a new, genderless name. Instead of helping her with guidance and boundaries, SDS allowed the illness to continue and metastasize. Most of the SDS kids would never even think about this kind of thing, but the middle schoolers were surrounded by it and pressured to condone this "new normal." It is human to struggle with adolescence, and some children express their pain with self-harm, such as anorexia, cutting, or transgenderism. SDS leadership, who allegedly represent Catholic ideology in a faith-based school, should have sought help for these children rather than allowing the self-harm to continue.
5. The Introduction of Racism
On February 4, 2021, SDS announced the first Black History Month celebration, which included class time for each student to create posters about black changemakers, culminating in the students dressing up as their favorite black person. Up until this point, one of the best things about SDS had always been that skin color didn’t matter. The children organically played together according to their personalities, not their races.
We voiced our concern that young children might not have the perspective to understand why we would celebrate one race over another. The reply was that “being colorblind inhibits progress.” This shocked me, since being colorblind is our only hope. We need equal treatment for all colors, and devoting a month to one race violates equality. I asked why we would force young SDS children, who may or may not have had to endure abuse due to their skin color, to start identifying each other by skin color. I asked if during a month-long celebration of people with dark skin, do the dark-skinned children feel better about themselves? Children who are singled out for their skin color, even in celebration, may think “my skin color needs extra help, extra attention.” Is this good? What about the other children whose skin colors aren’t being celebrated? How does this affect them?
The response was "America's past has been unkind to African-Americans,” being colorblind is not okay, and we should actually be focusing on race, and defining people by race. That is the dangerous premise of anti-racism, ironically. At SDS we had always embraced everyone as much as possible, with all of their unique qualities, and previously had not labeled children by their race, until this change.
6. Erosion of Community and Cherished Traditions
There was a time when the SDS community would support each other and band together in a way I’ve never experienced in other organizations. This eroded, particularly after the covid shutdown. There was less enthusiasm to continue special traditions, such as the Mother/Son Dance and the Father/Daughter Dance. Inexplicably, PTG leadership suggested these events be diminished to simple “chips and cola” in the parish hall, despite dedicated volunteers who had planned elaborate (but affordable) themed events. Graduation traditions were significantly reduced due to what seemed to be laziness on the part of the staff. When parents saw the damage being done to their children from prolonged mask-wearing, particularly negative effects on speech development and academic progress in our youngest and most vulnerable, the staff remained silent and even lashed out at parents who questioned the enforced mandatory separations/masking/continued limitations (which in September 2021 were more severe than what the public schools were enforcing). Many of the very things that separated SDS from other learning experiences were eliminated with no explanation.
These changes resulted in many active families significantly reducing their involvement or leaving the school entirely, which effectively destroyed the tight-knit community we had enjoyed for so many years.
7. Sneakiness and Dishonesty
We had not experienced dishonesty at SDS until the new administration took over in July 2021. Suddenly parents were kept in the dark, not encouraged to participate, and shut down (see #3). Communication significantly diminished. Long-standing traditions ended, including agreements with local vendors, causing financial losses for those who believed SDS would make good on their promises. When families learned about the dismissal letters that had been sent to others (see #8), they were understandably upset and asked the front office about it, but the administration never acknowledged what they had done. In fact, they lied and said the dismissed families just hadn't submitted their registration paperwork. One family who received a dismissal letter was told "I hope you choose to stay here" by the principal, who sent the letter. The school lied to parents about the school website (www.sdbenicia.org), saying it had been hacked, when the only step needed to restore the site was for them to explain why families who had questioned the severe covid restrictions at the school had been told they could not return. Rather than being honest, the principal chose to leave the school without a website for over a year, and then have a new domain/site created at parents’ expense. Instead of hosting a town hall and providing answers, the principal punished parents who tried to meet and share ideas.
8. The Most Disturbing Reason Why We Left
Several families who expressed concerns about unnecessary covid measures received letters from SDS informing them that “based on your recent actions and communications, [the new principal] does not invite your family back to St. Dominic School next year. Should she welcome you back, it will be the result of her compassion. However, you owe her an apology, and more importantly, a commitment to greater support for her immense efforts in creating the exemplary community represented by St. Dominic.” SDS even went after a family who simply wrote one heartfelt, gentle email, wondering about when the mask mandate would end, and expressing concern for the effects the masks were having on learning and development. Yet other families who more actively questioned the school's restrictive policies were not targeted, showing the school's bias. You can read one of the warning letters here, and one of the dismissal letters here.
These letters were so disturbing, especially from a new principal who claimed to have created the community that so many of us had given years of our love, dedication, time, and treasure to build. We knew at this point we had to cut all ties with SDS. As Christians and Americans, we couldn’t believe SDS was participating in today’s corrosive cancel culture. Not allowing free speech violates our very basic rights. The families who received the letters were horrified, and ashamed, and stopped asking questions. If that was the goal, it worked. It was also troubling that only certain families received letters, while others didn’t.
Families who have genuine concerns for the health of their children should not be shamed and silenced. These letters violated all Christian ethics and yet the school and the diocese to this day have made no apologies. Families should be warned that their views and questions are not welcome at SDS and if they voice differing opinions they will be asked not to return to the school.