Catholic High School Preparing to Welcome Students in Tontitown

NWA Democrat-Gazette  - LINK TO ARTICLE

Story by Dave Perozek

Sunday, November 26, 2017

TONTITOWN -- Northwest Arkansas' only Catholic high school has a location. Now it just needs students and faculty to fill the classrooms.

 NWA Democrat-Gazette/DAVID GOTTSCHALK John Rocha, Ozark Catholic Academy's head of school, sits in a classroom Nov. 17 on the campus of the school at the Religious Education Center at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Tontitown. The academy is the area's first Catholic high school and is preparing to open next fall. The academy signed a five-year lease for use of the education center.

NWA Democrat-Gazette/DAVID GOTTSCHALK John Rocha, Ozark Catholic Academy's head of school, sits in a classroom Nov. 17 on the campus of the school at the Religious Education Center at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Tontitown. The academy is the area's first Catholic high school and is preparing to open next fall. The academy signed a five-year lease for use of the education center.

 

Ozark Catholic Academy signed a five-year lease on space inside the Father Bandini Parish Education Center at St. Joseph Catholic Church in anticipation of opening next fall. John Rocha, the founding head of school, said he hopes to start with 50 students, including 40 freshmen and 10 sophomores.

Ozark Catholic Academy signed a five-year lease on space inside the Father Bandini Parish Education Center at St. Joseph Catholic Church in anticipation of opening next fall. John Rocha, the founding head of school, said he hopes to start with 50 students, including 40 freshmen and 10 sophomores.

Rocha hosted an open house at the center Oct. 15 to kick off the admissions process. The event drew about 300 people, including about 25 families likely to enroll kids in the school, he said.

Rocha's goal is to have 10 students signed up by the end of 2017.

Supporters have talked about starting a Catholic high school in Northwest Arkansas for the past two decades, but no significant action occurred until the past few years. Rocha said he's detected skepticism about whether this school is for real but securing a site has softened that skepticism.

"That really helped us, once the lease was signed, for people to come and see it, because now it's tangible," Rocha said. "And so it's not just me as a person, but I have a facility. So those little steps are making it easier for people. They're already happy for us, but they can't believe it just yet. I'm here to make it real."

Rocha was hired in the summer of 2016. He officially began the job in January. He came from Houston, where he'd been development director of an all-boys Catholic school.

He met with Philip Taldo, a real estate broker and Springdale resident, in August 2016. Taldo took Rocha on a tour of the region, and the two talked about where Ozark Catholic Academy should be. Taldo initially suggested St. Joseph in Tontitown, Rocha said.

"He knew what these facilities were like, and knew that they were underutilized during the week," Rocha said. "They're used during the weekend and Wednesday evenings, but now they can be used Monday through Friday during the day."

Subsequent conversations with the Rev. Gregory Hart, the former pastor at St. Joseph, led to the lease, which was finalized in August. Hart died Nov. 14.

"He very much wanted us to be here those first five years. And without his desires, it wouldn't have happened," Rocha said.

The school will start with six classrooms its first year and has the option to expand to include adjacent rooms in the building. The maximum student capacity at the site is 220.

Rocha and business manager Susan Thornton are the school's only employees for now. Hiring faculty will begin in February or March. Rocha said he's looking for not necessarily the best teachers, but good all-around people willing to mentor the students and serve as models of spirituality.

"I'm looking for Renaissance men and women to teach here, who can do multiple things and carry the weight of their students' souls on them," he said.

Northwest Arkansas has two Catholic schools, both of which extend through eighth grade: St. Joseph in Fayetteville and St. Vincent de Paul in Rogers. Both have been named Blue Ribbon schools by the U.S. Department of Education within the past three years.

The National Blue Ribbon Schools Program recognizes public and private elementary, middle and high schools where students either demonstrate high performance on standardized tests or have made progress toward closing achievement gaps.

The Rev. Jason Tyler, pastor at St. Joseph in Fayetteville, expects Ozark Catholic's opening to help his school. When parents enroll their children, one of their concerns is where they will go after eighth grade to continue their Catholic education, he said.

"We will have a great sort of feeder relationship, if you will," Tyler said.

St. Joseph School has about 300 students and graduates about 20 eighth-graders each year. Tyler said he's uncertain how many of this year's eighth-graders will enroll in Ozark Catholic, but he guessed it will be a significant number.

He previously oversaw St. Edward School in Little Rock, which also went through eighth grade. More than 90 percent of the students graduating from eighth grade there advanced to one of the nearby Catholic high schools, Tyler said.

George and Alesia Schaefer of Rogers have seven children, all of whom attended St. Vincent's through eighth grade. The youngest is a sixth-grader. The freshman is set to attend Ozark Catholic Academy next year.

"The fact we might be able to have two of our seven attend a Catholic high school is very exciting," Alesia Schaefer said.

Alesia Schaefer has served on Ozark Catholic Academy's founding committee. She and her husband attended Catholic high schools in Little Rock.

"We believe in Catholic education because we know it's an education that informs and instructs the whole person," Schaefer said. "It provides outstanding academics, but it also promotes development of moral compass and of the heart of the student."

Tuition will be $9,750 per year. Rocha said 20 percent of all tuition revenue will go into financial aid for students.

"That's very important to make sure we are diverse -- not for diversity's sake, but the sake of serving the whole Northwest Arkansas community," Rocha said. "Catholic or not Catholic, we want you to come and get a Catholic education."

Ozark Catholic Academy is an independent Catholic high school, but it still needed the approval of the Catholic Diocese of Little Rock. Vernell Bowen, superintendent of schools for the diocese, and Bishop Anthony Taylor have been supportive, Rocha said.

Blake Woolsey, executive vice president of Mitchell Communications Group in Fayetteville, attended college with Rocha at the University of Dallas, a Catholic school. Their paths crossed again when Rocha was lured to Northwest Arkansas last year by Ozark Catholic Academy organizers.

"He's incredibly smart," Woolsey said. "He's got the most positive spirit and strength and courage to do great stuff."

Woolsey said she's been involved in the conversation over the years about establishing a Catholic high school in Northwest Arkansas. She lends assistance when needed and gets regular updates from Rocha, she said.

Woolsey believes a Catholic high school will help Northwest Arkansas companies recruit employees who live in other parts of the country and who like having the option of a Catholic school in their community.

Rocha said his aim for the school is to develop each student's mind, body and soul and to help them understand and achieve what God intends them to be.

"We want them to be professionally successful, and we want them to serve the community. But they won't do that well unless they're really fulfilling who God wants them to be," he said.