St. Vincent Elementary School celebrates its 125th anniversary this year and the school is still healthy, happy and spry despite its advanced age.

A number of special events are planned to commemorate the anniversary, including a major celebration at the school on May 5 and a Heritage Carnival in October.

Current school principal Susan Roffman hasn't been around for the entire 125 years of the school's existence, but she has been at the school since 1981 when she started as a seventh-grade teacher. She wasn't around when what was known as St. Vincent Academy was built on the corner of Union and Howard streets in 1888, but she knows about the school history and has seen many transitions and changes, including the introduction of an eighth-grade class, the re-introduction of kindergarten, the switch to an all-lay faculty and a complete renovation of the school grounds.

The last of the Sisters of the Blessed Virgin Mary retired in 1986, and today the school has a faculty of all lay teachers. It has also expanded its programs to include art, music, computer science and, what Roffman calls, "all areas of academics and fine arts."

Renovation of the original building was completed in 2005 and now houses not only the kindergarten, but also the school library, music center, art room, tutoring rooms and a chapel. "It has been brought back to its glory," says Roffman.

Today's St. Vincent Elementary School is academic and social home to 277 students in kindergarten through eighth grade. While the students are still taught traditional school subjects, including cursive handwriting, St. Vincent has maintained and possibly kept ahead of technology trends. Roffman recalls that the school's first computer lab was set up in 1990 with donated IBM computers. Those are long gone, but the lab is still being used with much more modern technology.

The school also has a fully equipped science lab that will soon be expanded with the help of a Major Impact Grant from the Petaluma Educational Foundation.

Roffman says the changes and added technology are important, but they are not the main reason St. Vincent Elementary School is unique.

"We are special because of our families and our children," she says. "In some cases we have third and even fourth-generation students here. Our families are very committed to the school. We also have a great faculty, Everyone is here because they want to be at the school."

Kindergarten teacher DeAnn Sarlatte is definitely one of those teachers who wants to be at St. Vincent. "I love it here," she says. "It really doesn't feel like work."

Not only is Sarlatte a teacher, she is also a graduate both of St. Vincent Elementary and St. Vincent High schools. She is the third generation in her family to attend the school and now her two daughters make the fourth generation attending the school. One is in fourth grade and the other has moved on to the high school where she is a sophomore.

Sarlatte came to St. Vincent as a fourth grader and it didn't take long for her to realize St. Vincent was where she belonged. She went on to graduate from the high school and attend Sacramento State University.

Sarlatte was hired by Roffman to teach first grade, and when the kindergarten program was restarted, moved into that grade level. Her sister, Angela Riley, now teaches the first grade.

Her story is a familiar one for St. Vincent Elementary, which is often as much a family as it is a school.

Roffman's own daughter, Elizabeth Kerran was taught by her mother at St. Vincent.

Kerran attended kindergarten and first grade at La Tercera School before a spot opened up for her at St. Vincent. Her experiences there, through the eighth grade, including her seventh-grade year in her mother's class, are experiences she will always remember.

"It was a fantastic experience," she says. "It more than prepared me for high school and then college (St. Mary's). She says at St. Mary's, a lot of the students struggled in writing and making presentations, things she had learned in elementary school at St. Vincent.

Roffman says the elementary school is one part of the overall St. Vincent community.

"We are not just an entity in ourselves," she explains. "It all starts with the parish. Father Gary (Lombardi) is an amazing leader and it is important that our students can go on to the high school here. We are all one family."

St. Vincent High School principal Dr. John Walker agrees. "We very closely communicate," he says. "It is a tripartite with the church, the elementary school and the high school."

In any given year, 25-30 percent of the high school population is comprised of St. Vincent Elementary School graduates. The others come from Our Lady of Loretto and Good Shepherd schools in Novato and from around the area.

He says St. Vincent Elementary graduates are a key to the high school's success. "It is a very interesting dynamic," he says. "On one hand the students are in a much, much bigger peer environment. On the other hand, and the thing I like, is that they really set the tone for the students around them. They set the tone in the way the students study, in the respect they show the staff and the compassion they have for one another."

Walker said that the compassion the students have for one another is one of the things that makes the St. Vincent school experience different. "We have a very friendly, very caring community," the principal explains. "You don't see that in all schools."

Also unique, he said, is the emphasis the students themselves put on academics. "The students know that their interest in academics is going to be supported by their peers," he explains.

Walker agrees with Roffman that St. Vincent will be around to celebrate its next 125 years. "We are going into an increasingly technological age and we're very quickly seeing a tremendous amount of remote schooling," he said. "That being said, I believe that the need and desire for face-to-face teaching and learning is always going to persist."

(Contact John Jackson at johnie.jackson@arguscourier.com.)