BY ALESIA SCHAEFER
ROGERS -- The ink had barely begun to dry on his contract before John Rocha began making plans for his next visit to northwest Arkansas. The newly hired head of school for the first-ever Catholic high school in the area had a long to-do list and he was ready to get started.
And start he did in late August with a dawn-to-dusk itinerary that involved meeting area citizens, attending a deanery meeting and meeting parents at functions at St. Joseph and St. Vincent de Paul schools in Fayetteville and Rogers, respectively.
In his visit, Rocha rolled out the vision for the new school and its new name, Ozark Catholic Academy. The school is scheduled to open its doors in August 2018. Parents and others around the project were receptive to the new name, vision and mission of the school.
“There is tremendous excitement about the progress towards the northwest Arkansas Catholic high school. First and foremost, this provides after many years, a faith-based high school option for the regional Catholic community,” said Will Brandt, a father of three elementary students at St. Joseph, who attended the curriculum night Friday, Aug. 26 where Rocha spoke to parents.
“But, more broadly,” Brandt added, “the school adds to the region’s secondary school options, which will only help attract and retain more families to northwest Arkansas.”
A meet-the-principal night Aug. 24 at St. Vincent de Paul School garnered the same enthusiasm after parents and parishioners heard Rocha share the vision for Ozark Catholic Academy.
Katie Harris, a mother with two young children not yet ready for school, was one who came that evening to meet Rocha.
“We have been following this whole project since 2007,” said Harris, originally from Conway. “I thought (Rocha) was amazing!” she said. “My husband, Andrew, and I are very pumped about Catholic education, even though our children are just 2 years old and 7 months old, I want to do whatever I can to help get it started here.”
Ozark Catholic Academy will be an independent Catholic school, and Rocha explained that independent Catholic schools are unique, in that they are separate from a parish, but still serve the greater Catholic and non-Catholic communities.
“Since Vatican II there has been a rise of independent schools run by the laity, both independent and parochial, embracing the call to serve all and bring the faith to all,” Rocha said.
“Catholic schools are universal in that they are for all people,” he said. “Their focus, parochial or not, is geared toward the community of faithful near by.”
“With Ozark Catholic Academy, however,” Rocha said, “the community we hope to reach is not among one local parish but an overall community, represented by the towns of Fayetteville, Springdale, Rogers, Bentonville, Tontitown and Bella Vista.”
Inspiration for the name, according to Rocha, was to further root the school in who and what the area represents and for the name of the school to reflect this.
“Ozark Catholic Academy’s name, as well as the coat of arms, brings together the importance of the local area the school serves as well as bringing forth the teaching that man is incarnational, as we are made in the image and likeness of Christ,” said Rocha, who was hired in July after a national search. “The natural wonders and beauty of the area (the mountains and hills, the lakes and rivers, the trees surrounding us, as well as the animals), remind us of God’s creation of which we too, as human persons are a part.”
“Ozark Catholic Academy will root itself, in the teachings of the Catholic Church, particularly from the recent Vatican Council, but also in the wonder and beauty of what God has given us here,” Rocha added.
With the unveiling of the name of the school and a coat of arms, Rocha now has the task of educating individuals about the mission, vision and philosophy of the school. But, the more difficult task at hand will be raising the necessary funds in the months ahead to give the project the momentum it needs for 2017.
Encouraged by the grassroots success of parents pledging money in May, Rocha wants to capitalize on that success by raising $500,000 by December. In January, he plans to unveil Ozark Catholic Academy’s master plan and in summer 2017 to make the announcement of a location.
“There was an overwhelmingly positive reaction from everyone,” said Ashley Menendez, president of the Northwest Arkansas Catholic high school planning board, when asked about Rocha’s visit to the area.
“There is still a long road ahead,” said Erica Erck, a parent at St. Joseph School. “But hearing some plans and key points that set Catholic education apart from what is currently offered in northwest Arkansas made me believe this will soon be an option for high school students in the near future.”
Rocha plans to visit the area one week each month from through December. At that time, he and his wife, Donna, and their 10 children will relocate to the area from Houston.
Crest reflects nature and faith
According to principal John Rocha, "The images are a reminder that the school is rooted in a particular time and place, reflect the Incarnation. The cross, dividing the four images of nature, indicates that through the sacrifice of our Lord on the cross, along with our participation in it, the whole of creation is redeemed. The border embracing all four images is God, who is the source of the harmonious unity of all reality, reflected in the school’s integrated curriculum. Finally, the Franciscan cross at the bottom of the crest is reminiscent of a knot and thus emphasizes the unity and the ultimate peace that results from our Lord's sacrifice on the cross and the sanctification of oneself and the world it makes possible."
In crafting the motto, Rocha said he spent a lot of time reflecting on the relationship the school would share with the LaSallian tradition and the connection to the faith and world.
"Ozark Catholic Academy’s motto, found in the banner at the top and bottom of the crest, is freedom (libertas), truth (veritas), docility (docilitas) and sanctify (sanctificate)," he said. "The motto first reflects the school’s effort to form students in the proper use of their freedom and to enliven their docility — that is, the spirit of openness to what is taught and the sensitivity to the presence of truth. Freedom and docility engender a genuine humility, the choice to accept reality as it is. Such humility is essential to the pursuit of truth, the fundamental purpose of authentic education. The pursuit of truth only comes to full fruition, however, when the student allows himself to be sanctified by the truth so that he may transcend himself in the sanctification of others."