By Jessica Easthope and Paula Katinas
FLATBUSH — It’s Monday morning, and the Etheridge household is buzzing with activity. Six-year-old Noah Etheridge gets a helping hand from his dad, Dustin, adjusting his backpack before they walk to St. Saviour Catholic Academy in Park Slope, where Noah is a first grader.
When Dustin and Noah arrive at school 20 minutes later, dad bids his son goodbye on the sidewalk and watches as Noah enters the building where he will spend the next several hours.
That walk is part of a bigger journey for the Etheridges — one that has taken them 627 miles from North Carolina to New York.
Dustin and Kristy moved to Brooklyn in 2018 and have since established strong roots, so much so that they’re on a first-name basis with their local bodega owner, who knows their sandwich orders by heart.
Dustin was a stranger to New York, and Kristy was only an occasional tourist when they took a leap of faith and made a move that would drastically change their lives.
Kristy, who grew up outside Philadelphia, had visited New York a number of times. Dustin was born and raised in North Carolina and, throughout his journalism career, had traveled to a number of major cities, like London, Paris, and Barcelona — but never New York.
So they took a two-day trip to the Big Apple in the fall of 2016. The scene when they stepped outside of Penn Station is one they remember vividly.
“We walked out onto 34th Street … and it was Black Friday, and it was snowing,” Dustin recalled. “It was like a postcard image that people have of New York City decorated for the holidays.”
The couple soon returned home to Charlotte. However, Dustin knew that it wouldn’t be the last time he’d see New York.
Dustin and Kristy met when they were working at a television station in North Carolina. Kristy was a reporter, and Dustin was often assigned to work with her as her videographer. They became engaged in March 2010 and were married six months later.
Kristy had always thought of New York as a nice place to visit but questioned whether the city was conducive to family life.
“For the better part of a year, we had talked about it and kicked it around. Kristy had a lot of apprehensions,” Dustin said.
Then, Dustin landed a job with a video production company in Brooklyn, and that got the ball rolling pretty quickly.
Kristy and Dustin said they felt that God was opening doors for them. They, along with Noah, who was 2, made the big move in 2018. They packed up a U-Haul and headed north — not knowing anyone in Brooklyn.
The Etheridges are Christian and soon found their faith community at the Bridge Church NYC, a nondenominational congregation in Downtown Brooklyn.
“Our lives are built around faith,” said Kristy.
But the video production job that had paved the way for their move to New York fizzled out after a couple of months.
Dustin soon landed a position at DeSales Media Group, the communications and technology ministry and parent company of The Tablet.
“The call from DeSales felt like a divine appointment,” said Kristy, who joined DeSales Media Group as a freelancer a year later.
After the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in 2020, the couple decided to homeschool Noah for preschool and kindergarten.
While that was going well, when their second child, Olivia, was born in 2021, homeschooling became too much of a challenge. So Dustin and Kristy began looking at various schools for Noah, but they struggled to find a good fit.
“What we didn’t want was to have church or faith be a Sunday-only thing,” Kristy said. “We really wanted it to be part of our family’s whole life.”
Their place of employment played a hand in their decision. Dustin serves as the manager of digital content and creative services for the news department at DeSales Media, and Kristy is the proofreader for The Tablet.
“We know everything that’s going on with the schools and with the diocese,” Dustin explained. “And we watched how the Catholic schools were quietly successful through the pandemic and how the standardized testing scores were doing.”
Schools in the Diocese of Brooklyn, which had adopted a remote learning model during the height of the pandemic, reopened fully to in-person classes in September 2020 with safety precautions such as social distancing and mandatory mask-wearing in place.
By contrast, New York City public schools did not fully reopen that September but were instead subject to a hodgepodge of partial reopenings and scattered schedules depending on COVID-19 transmission rates. After only eight weeks, public schools fully closed on Nov. 19 and went back to a remote learning model. Elementary schools reopened for in-person classes on Dec. 10, and high schools didn’t reopen until the following March.
Some parents, perhaps upset with all of the uncertainty, began voting with their feet. Public school enrollment in New York dropped 3.8% in the 2021-2022 school year.
According to the Office of the Superintendent for the Diocese of Brooklyn, more than a third of schools in the diocese have enrollment numbers exceeding pre-pandemic figures. And those schools are growing at a rate of 20%.
The solution to Dustin and Kristy’s dilemma came in an “aha” moment.
“Kristy said, ‘I have a crazy idea,’ and I said, ‘I think I have the same idea,’ ” Dustin recalled. “Before I could say anything, she blurted out: ‘What about Catholic school?’ ”
After further research and a tour of St. Saviour Catholic Academy, Kristy and Dustin said they were easily sold and opted to enroll Noah in first grade; he started in September of 2022.
It’s a decision many parents who are not Catholic make for their children. According to the Office of the Superintendent, approximately 30% of the students in the Diocese of Brooklyn schools and academies are not Catholic.
When deciding where to send their son, the Etheridges chose Catholic school for various reasons — their desire for a faith-based education that adhered to their Christian values, rigorous academics, and smaller class sizes.
“We loved the small class sizes,” Kristy said, “and it just felt really warm and inviting and nurturing.”
Most importantly, however, the Etheridges wanted a faith-based education for their son.
“To go beyond the academics, to teaching about faith, is important to us,” Kristy said.
Safety was also a factor that weighed on their minds.
Just over 1,500 weapons were seized in New York City public schools in the first three months of the 2022-2023 academic year — double the number seized last year during the same time period, according to NYPD statistics. Most of the weapons are knives, but not all. Five guns have been discovered so far this school year.
However, in the Diocese of Brooklyn, according to Superintendent of Schools Deacon Kevin McCormack, the number of weapons brought to schools is virtually nonexistent. Schools and academies within the diocese have a zero-tolerance policy regarding violence.
“I have no qualms about his safety [at St. Saviour]. I feel really comfortable sending him there,” Dustin said.
The couple also loved the family atmosphere. “I think it’s been even better than we hoped it would be,” Kristy said. “Their motto is ‘Small School With a Big Heart.’ ”
Principal Susan Walsh said she takes pride in the fact that St. Saviour’s reputation has reached far beyond the Catholic community.
“We have a lot of non-Catholic children here. We have a very, very diverse student body,” she explained. “We tell the children that the most important thing is to be kind to one another and to be accepting of one another and to listen and collaborate with people that might not have the same ideas as you.”
Walsh also strives to create a small-town atmosphere so that students and parents feel at home. “We know every child in the building, and that’s really important to us. It’s important that we meet the needs of each child,” she explained.
Kristy and Dustin are making valuable connections too. “That’s really been exciting for us to have a new community and for Noah to have so many friends his age and for us to meet other parents,” Kristy said.
“I’ve made 18 friends!” Noah exclaimed. There are 19 kids in his class.
When asked what he is learning, he quickly responded: “math, spelling, religion, and social studies.” Noah has also learned geography and said, without prompting, “The Amazon River is the second longest river in the world.”
The Etheridges are also impressed with the school’s arts education program. Noah is taking part in a theater class called Stages on the Sound, where professional actors come in and work with the students.
“It’s the fundamentals of acting; learning where stage left and stage right are,” Dustin explained. Noah played the Big Bad Wolf when the class performed scenes from “The Three Little Pigs.”
“The holistic approach that they take, from literature to science to history to the arts — and the fact that it’s all presented through the lens of faith — that’s why we chose this school,” Dustin said.
“A lot of places have mottos, and we didn’t really pay too much attention to that initially,” Kristy said. “But ever since we started going there, they have really proven that they are a small school with a really big heart.”