Fifty years ago in 1969 – the year of the Apollo 11 moon landing, the Woodstock concert and the “Amazin’” Mets World Series triumph – St. Columba School in Oxon Hill, Maryland, had its first graduating class, and the eighth graders receiving their diplomas included Christine Granzen.

Seven years later, she and Keith Patton were married at St. Columba Church. When they began a family, they sent their three children to St. Columba School, and Christine Patton began volunteering with hot lunches, as a room parent, working in the library and helping with story time for the kindergarten students and first graders. She also served on St. Columba’s Home and School Board.

Then over the years Christine Patton served at St. Columba School as the librarian, as a kindergarten aide, and taught kindergarten, third grade and fifth grade, and as assistant principal.

Now in her 25th year working at St. Columba School, Patton is serving in another role, as interim principal there.

“Who would have ever thought, when I was graduating here in 1969, (that) I’d be back as principal? It’s amazing!” she said in in interview.

She noted that at St. Columba’s back to school night she told parents, “I’ve been where they are. I’ve been a student, parent, volunteer, teacher and now I’m an administrator (here). I’ve played just about every role you can in the school community.”

She noted that one parent told her, “You’re like a poster child for St. Columba!”

In an interview, Father Gary Villanueva, St. Columba’s pastor, said Patton’s experience has prepared her to lead the school. “Serving here for 25 years – that means she has a dedication and faithfulness to our school… Experience is important, and she knows the lay of the land at St. Columba School.”

Patton said attending St. Columba School shaped her life – “it gave me my core values in my faith which I still have today.”

She was among four of six children in her family who attended the school.

“The sisters had a big impression on me,” Patton said, remembering the Dominican Sisters of Adrian, Michigan, who staffed the school when it opened, including Sister David Marie, the first principal who taught her in the second and third grade, and Sister Ann Colleen, her fourth grade teacher.

“Teaching was their life, and they were totally dedicated to the children in the school,” she said.

As a young girl, Patton thought about becoming a sister, then about maybe being an English teacher someday, but after high school, she began a career as a hairdresser.

In 1988, she and her husband bought their first home down the street from St. Columba School, and they sent their oldest daughter, Amanda, there for kindergarten. In the years that followed, they also sent their daughter Kimberley and their son Daniel to the school.

“It was a good feeling. I could put my children in school where I knew their academics, socialization and faith could be nurtured,” Patton said.

Her daughters later also graduated from Bishop Ireton High School in Alexandria, Virginia, and her son from Bishop McNamara High School in Forestville, Maryland.

“I don’t regret making sacrifices to send my children to Catholic elementary school and high school. It was worth every penny we sacrificed,” she said.

After volunteering at St. Columba School as a parent, and then beginning to work part-time there as a kindergarten aide while also working part-time as a hairdresser, her school colleagues encouraged Patton to go to college.

As she continued teaching at St. Columba in a variety of roles, Patton went on to earn an associates degree at Prince George’s Community College, then a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Maryland’s University College, and ultimately a master of arts degree in administration and leadership from Notre Dame of Maryland University.

Earning those degrees, while at the same time taking care of her family at home and working at St. Columba School, required Patton to take online, evening, weekend and summer classes.

“I tell the kids and I tell the parents who come in, that you’re never too old to learn and start a new career,” said Patton. “I raised my children, I went back to school, and I stuck with it. There were many late nights.”

St. Columba School seventh graders Lauren Tyler and Mariah Pleta are visited by Christine Patton, a St. Columba graduate, parent and teacher who is now leading the school. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

She also witnessed the sacrifice of fellow parents, who raised funds so the school could be equipped with air-conditioning, so students and parents would no longer have to endure warm temperatures in their classrooms at the beginning and end of the school years.

“When parents see the need and children will benefit, they go all out,” she said.

The St. Columba community also rallies on behalf of its school during the annual Walk for Catholic Education, where family members walk five or 10 kilometers to raise funds for scholarships to supplement children’s education there. Patton helped launch the walk, which in recent years has taken place at National Harbor.

The Catholic school’s tradition of academic excellence has been a constant over the years, she said.

“The kids that leave here are well prepared for academic challenges in high school, and that’s always been the case,” Patton said. “We have good teachers. We are a family. We are a caring community.”

The educator remembers that it was “like herding cats” on the first days of school for kindergarten students, but then how rewarding it was to see their growth by the end of the school year, when “they can read, they know their numbers, and they can tie their shoes.”

Now the 166 students at St. Columba School include eighth graders who were part of the last kindergarten class taught by Patton, who also taught them as third and fifth graders.

Reflecting on her hopes for the students who graduate from St. Columba School, Patton said, “I hope they leave here with great memories of the teachers who have helped guide them along with their parents, (who’ve) gotten them through rough times and encouraged them to be the best persons (they can be), and that they remember the values we taught them here, (and) make the right choices. We’ve given them the foundation to build on.”

In her family and work life, Patton herself has relied on that foundation of faith and learning from St. Columba School. She still has her diploma from the school, with her class picture attached. Patton and her husband Keith, a retired postal worker, now have five grandchildren.

When asked what has kept her at St. Columba School over the years, she said, “I feel like I belong here… This is my second family.”

At St. Columba’s back to school night, Patton told parents, “I think God has a plan for everybody.” She said her opportunity to lead the school that she once attended, volunteered at as a parent and where she taught, “is my opportunity to pay it forward.”