St. Paul’s Lutheran School has been educating Pacific Beach children for 75 years
The least favorite part of Meredith Binnie’s day is sitting in her office, completing paperwork on her computer.
As principal of St. Paul’s Lutheran Schools of Pacific Beach, Binnie said she would much rather be hanging out with the children.
“I came and visited and knew I needed to be here,” she said. At the time of that 2015 visit she was an administrator of a different Lutheran school in Las Vegas.
She became St. Paul’s principal shortly after.
“PB ticked all my boxes — great area, great families, great kids and great teachers,” she explained.
St. Paul’s Lutheran Church of Pacific Beach, founded in February 1943, celebrated its 75th anniversary a few years ago and now it is the schools’ turn.
It was founded in September 1947 as a one-room school with 30 children. In 1954 it was expanded with the addition of two more classrooms and over the decades has greatly expanded. It now has 155 K-8 students and another 60 in its preschool.
Some low-key celebrations were planned for the students’ return to the classrooms on Aug. 31.
Want to know more?
St. Paul’s Lutheran Church & Schools of Pacific Beach
Address: 1375 Felspar St., Pacific Beach
The schools consist of a preschool, a junior kindergarten and classes for kindergartners through eighth graders.
“More prepared, more honorable, more loved, #worthmore,” isn’t just a motto on a website, it’s what the students attending St. Paul’s Schools can expect.
“At St. Paul’s, our students just get more,” Binnie said. “Between the sense of family you get when you’re on campus and the small class sizes, they get a lot of individual attention.”
She added, “As well as a quality education, our environment services the whole child — the social, emotional, academic and spiritual sides, all focuses on the child as a child of God.”
As principal, her typical day begins with the staff meeting for devotion and a prayer. Afterwards, she greets the students as they’re dropped off and enter their classrooms.
She also tries to be there for recess, lunch and snack times, as well as just popping in and out of the classrooms during the day.
“Really, I got into the Lutheran schools because of the students,” Binnie said. “We have a wide range of kids, from preschool age 2 all the way to 14 years. I enjoy their personalities, their positive energy, their love of the Lord and their desire to learn.
“They always have funny things to say, whether it’s on purpose or not,” she joked.
Fred Friedrichs has been a teacher for 40 years, and also felt called to St. Paul’s.
“I started here 34 years ago and I’ve never looked back,” Friedrichs said. “I love being a teacher. I love just being around the energy and creativity. I look forward to the start of the school year and getting that ‘back in the class’ time.”
Lead Pastor Jim Henkell said he is not surprised when the staff say they feel “called to be here,” as the positions are about more than just working with nice people or being in a good neighborhood.
“For those of us who work in a church and school setting, we have a sense God directed us to be here to make a difference in the lives of other people; He really wants us here for this purpose,” Henkell explained.
Friedrichs said he taught at two other schools prior to joining the team at St. Paul’s.
“Those other two schools were valuable experiences, but I realize how fortunate and blessed I am to be at St. Paul’s in comparison,” Friedrichs said. “I’ve always felt this is the place where I should be teaching.”
Friedrichs said he believes the partnership that exists between the parents and the kids is part of the reason he enjoys his work so much. He said that at other schools, there often seems to be a contentious relationship between parents and the school board, while at St. Paul’s, it’s a “deeply appreciative partnership.
“Here, parents are supportive. They hold their kids accountable,” he said. “It’s rare that a parent comes in blaming the teachers when their child isn’t succeeding; instead, they ask for help and suggestions from us.”
The professionalism of his fellow teachers is another reason Friedrichs said he continues to love teaching.
“I’ve worked with a lot of different teachers, and all share a complete commitment to the kids. They each are committed not just to teaching the students, but to the art and craft and science of teaching and being the best they can be,” he said. “I know that sounds kind of like an ad, but it’s the truth.”
Friedrichs said since he is the most experienced person among the St. Paul’s instructors, he has taught a variety of things over the years, although he mainly teaches history, science and research writing.
He described his favorite part of each day as “anytime the kids are excited and engaged in what we are doing. And it can happen multiple times a day,” he said.
Meanwhile, his least favorite times are the opposite — such as when his teaching falls flat.
“Our kids are wonderful and polite, but you can read a room and know when something isn’t working. In that case, I just switch gears, fairly quickly,” he said.
The pattern of Lutheran churches establishing adjoining schools began back in 1640.
“The church in PB was established in 1943, and the school developed five years later, around 1947 and 1948,” Henkell said. “It was always part of the design and intent of the church, as it’s part of the church’s mission to be able to reach the community with the love of God.”
St. Paul’s Lutheran was originally located on Garnet Avenue, but eventually moved to Felspar Street.
The school continued to grow throughout the 1990s, experienced a bit of a decline in the 2000s when there were not as many children in Pacific Beach, but it has now come back strong, as families are once again retuning to the area.
The arrival of COVID did little to dampen the school’s attendance.
“Ironically, the school has grown since COVID,” Binnie said. “We were able to get a waiver, remained fully open and a lot of families came to us and are still here.”
Along with the rest of the staff, Henkell said he also enjoys his time with the students.
“Every Friday I gather with the eighth graders for a Q & A session; they put questions in a box throughout the week and we discuss the answers, based on what the Bible teaches us,” he said.
The questions cover anything and everything, Henkell said.
“It’s always fascinating to hear what the students are thinking about, and what is on their hearts.”
It is the philosophy of St. Paul’s Lutheran School that every child’s education is based on rigorous academic study. Their school days include artistic and music experiences, as well as health and fitness activities.
The children take music classes a couple of times a week and perform music as well. Spanish is taught in the K-8 classes, and most of the kids can converse in Spanish. There is an art masters program, and physical education is taught three times a week.
Since being an effective communicator can also lead to student success, Binnie said students practice a lot of critical thinking and learn to be excellent public speakers.
“Our kindergartners can read and present at chapel to the entire school,” Binnie said. “They step right up to the microphone; it’s amazing to see.”
Technology is also integrated into their learning experiences, with all students using classroom devices to create their reports and presentations.
“The every day integration of digital resources over the last 20 yeas has been extraordinary,” Henkell said. “We revamped the church and school several years ago to make the use of technology more feasible.”
Because being in the community and helping others is so important, St. Paul’s students participate in a number of mission and service projects outside the school.
“Depending on the time of the year, we partner with either local or worldwide agencies,” Binnie said.
For example, she described virtual field trips classes have taken to a school in Guatemala; money collected through chapel offerings is then sent to the school for class supplies, repairs on the building or whatever else is needed.
Locally, service projects range from putting together snack bags to be given to those who are homeless to writing letters of encouragement to nursing home residents. They have also donated canned goods to and given performances at the Ronald McDonald House.
“When kids leave St. Paul’s, we want them to be confident in being able to express themselves, to be critical thinkers and to have excellent skills as they enter high school,” Friedrichs said.
Because of its smaller class sizes and parental involvement, he said students excel at the higher level.
“We see it in the classroom, we see it in the work they do in high school and we hear it when we interview them and ask how they are doing,” Friedrichs said. “It’s common for students to let us know they are doing things in their sophomore year of high school, for example, that they already learned here at St. Paul’s.”
After teaching for more than three decades, Friedrichs said the most important thing he’s learned is to never stop learning.
“I’ve staying in this field so long because every year I look forward to preparing for the year and to the new group of kids,” he said. “I love teaching, I love it here and I love being a part of the whole ministry of the school. It’s been a wonderful experience.”
Henkell has been with the church 19 years, and said he believes that although there are generational differences between students and families through the years, overall, “more stays the same than changes.
“Our families just want to know that God has a purpose and plan for their lives, that he is at work and that they are loved,” Henkell said. “And we not only appreciate them and want what is best for them, at St. Paul’s we genuinely love them and really do consider them part of our family.”
Proof that the families reciprocate the feeling is when former students bring their children back to be taught, and many of the youngsters at St. Paul’s are second-generation.
“Many of our alumni regularly stop by to say hi to their teachers. And a number of students graduate, and then send their own kids here to school,” Binnie said.
Stephen and Jennifer Grebing’s children are some of the second-generation students.
“My parents started me at St. Paul’s in January of 1976, when I was just 5 1/2 or 6 years old,” Stephen Grebing said. “I continued to go until my eighth grade graduation in 1984. I have three younger siblings, and they all went to St. Paul’s as well.”
As a student, Grebing said the rules were a bit different when he was younger.
“Even though I lived in PB and was close to the school, they had a school bus which I took,” he said.
But it was the caring attitude of the teachers that has stayed with him through the years.
“The teachers were very dedicated, just as they are now,” he said. “The classes were intimate, so you got to know everyone really well. With the attention from the teachers, you felt safe, you could ask questions, you could learn a lot and you felt like they really cared for you.”
Grebing said some of his favorite memories of his school days revolve around playing basketball.
“The Lutheran school had a competitive league and it was a good way to get introduced to sports; it was a lot of fun,” he said.
Grebing later met his wife, Jennifer, through the church; they both attended separately before they began dating. Once they had children of their own, sending them to St. Paul’s was a natural fit.
“My daughter went to St. Paul’s from pre-K through eighth grade and is just now starting college; St. Paul’s gave her the platform to do as well as she has done,” he said.
Grebing added that both of their sons also started as pre-K students; one is now a junior in high school, while the youngest will be attending Mission Bay High School this year.
“All of my kids have received a great education while at St. Paul’s and it’s something all three appreciate,” Grebing added.
After high school, whether students decide to attend college, begin their careers, or take other paths, the St. Paul’s legacy continues. The staff is committed to providing positive experiences for their students and their families.
“We’re always sad to see our students leave, but we’re also glad they’ve had such a great experience while they were here,” Binnie said. With just how uncertain things have been in the past few years, St. Paul’s has been a safe and loving environment for the kids in our community.“