Group takes steps toward starting Catholic high school in Northwest Arkansas

Story by Brenda Bernet

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Efforts continue toward opening Northwest Arkansas' first Catholic high school in the fall of 2018.

"I can't tell you the number of people who were skeptical that I've met with over the last two years," said Ashley Menendez, president of the Northwest Arkansas Catholic High School planning board. "I've worked tirelessly to make this happen. It's definitely been a roller coaster. I'm 100 percent confident we're going to have this high school."

The Northwest Arkansas Catholic High School planning board, a nonprofit group, on Tuesday named John Rocha Sr. as its founding head of school. He is the development director of an all-boys Catholic school in Houston. Rocha's contract with the group begins in January, though he plans to spend several days each month between now and December visiting Northwest Arkansas.

"The next step really will be to figure out where the school will be and what our plans are," Menendez said. "He's going to hit the ground running."

Menendez moved with her husband and three children to Fayetteville two years ago from St. Louis, where children can receive a Catholic education from kindergarten through 12th grade. Menendez wants that experience for her children, she said.

"We have wonderful public schools," she said. "The large class sizes are not a great fit for every child."

Establishing a Catholic high school will be an important step for Northwest Arkansas, said Jason Pohlmeier, principal of St. Joseph Catholic School in Fayetteville. The school for pre-kindergarten through eighth grade has operated continuously since 1948. Students attending Catholic school in Northwest Arkansas do not have a local option to continue their Catholic education in high school.

"There have been very few Catholic high schools in the state," Pohlmeier said. "It's something we really need to continue growing Catholic education and provide Catholic education across our state."

The planning board also has connected with the Christian Brothers of the Midwest, headquartered in Burr Ridge, Ill., with the intent of the high school in Northwest Arkansas joining its network of schools, Menendez said.

The organization that will assist the board in helping to establish the school's Catholic identity because it will operate independently of the Catholic Diocese of Little Rock, said Scott Kier, superintendent of Lasallian education for Christian Brothers of the Midwest. The Midwest district is a sponsor of 13 Catholic high schools, as well as middle schools, universities and retreat centers.

The worldwide network of schools associated with the Brothers of the Christian Schools, founded in France by Saint John the Baptist de La Salle, reaches more than 1 million students each day, Kier said.

A group of individuals formed the planning board in 2014 and had sought to purchase 45 acres of land in Springdale in January for the school, but the plans hit a snag.

Rather than pursuing a site, the planning board opted instead to hire a "visionary" to take over the project and move it forward, Menendez said. The board asked the community to give money to support the hiring of a head of school, with community members and families from St. Joseph Catholic School in Fayetteville and St. Vincent de Paul Catholic School in Rogers pledging $275,000.

A national search led to two finalists, with a nine-member selection committee choosing Rocha, Menendez said.

Rocha will guide the board in decisions about the location of the high school and whether to go forward with building a school or taking an interim step of leasing a facility, Menendez said. Rocha's contract is still being finalized, and Menendez would not disclose his salary.

Rocha, who is married and has 10 children, has been involved in Catholic education for 20 years, from teaching English literature at St. Thomas High School, the Catholic high school he attended as a student in Houston, to teaching at the University of St. Thomas. He also has experience as a director of programs and academic director for the Free Enterprise Institute in Houston, where teachers received training on teaching about Western civilization and American history.

Rocha also was involved in founding Western Academy, where he became the development director in 2009.

Rocha attended meetings at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Fayetteville and at St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church in Rogers and saw the enthusiasm for Catholic education and the desire for the school to succeed, he said.

The new leader hopes to channel the enthusiasm into raising money for the school, he said. He anticipates a need of $500,000 to hire additional school leaders and for the development of a capital campaign. In January, he hopes to unveil plans for what it will take to complete the school.

NW News on 08/21/2016