Alaska’s Catholic schools expand offerings

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More than 400 Catholic school students have filled the hallways, classrooms and chapels of the five schools located in the Anchorage Archdiocese. With the start of the new academic year, educators are offering a variety of options to Alaskan parents seeking to provide their children a faith-based educational alternative to public schools.

The five schools include three in Anchorage, one in Wasilla and one on Kodiak Island. Each school is different, but all have the common goal of weaving together quality education grounded in the Catholic faith.

The oldest is St. Mary’s School in Kodiak — a well-loved community institution with a long history. The youngest, Our Lady of the Valley, sits on the grounds of Sacred Heart Church in Wasilla. It has overcome a bumpy start in a strip mall to find itself now growing into a popular part of the parish campus.

The only independent Catholic school, not officially affiliated with the archdiocese but working in collaboration on many fronts, is Holy Rosary Academy. It serves up a unique menu of classical curriculum that includes training in Greek and Latin. St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, the only parish-based grade school in Anchorage, is known for its impressive and original statuary and religious artworks that adorn hallways and classrooms. Of Lumen Christi High School at St. Benedict Church in Anchorage, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York recently told the students during a visit, “Schools like Lumen Christi give me hope.”

Combined these schools are serving about 450 students this fall. In speaking to the Catholic Anchor, though, the principals stressed that enrollment numbers are fluid this time of year as many parents continue to make last minute decisions.

CLOSE-KNIT ST. MARY’S

St. Mary’s School in Kodiak is a parish-sponsored pre-K through 8th grade elementary school. Founded 60 years ago by the Grey Nuns and staffed by the sisters until recent years, the school of roughly 60 students, “has never had more than 50 percent Catholic students,” said Principal Brian Cleary. As such, it’s been seen as a community treasure. This was evident to Father Frank Reitter when he was assigned pastor of St. Mary Church and school more than a year ago. He asked the community to evaluate whether the perennially financially strapped school could survive.

Local benefactors came forward, particularly several anonymous families who pledged to cover 25 percent of the budget for the next five years. Smaller donors came forward as well.

“Kodiak has an island mentality,” said Cleary, who has been involved with the school for decades as both a parent and board member. “People will stop you in the store and ask, ‘How are things going at the school?’”

A weekly school Mass is held for all students, not just the 40 percent who are Catholic.

“Father Reitter is great with an acceptance of all faith traditions,” Cleary said, “and he’s great with kids. It provides him an opportunity to answer questions when someone asks about vestments, ‘why are you wearing that funny outfit?’”

“[Religious education] is held in our lounge during the school day,” Cleary added. “Father Frank always has his arms wide open.”

Not surprisingly, four students and their parents were baptized into the Catholic faith last year.

Cleary utilizes local scientists and marine experts who work on the island, frequently calling them into the classroom as outside resources.

“Small schools can do fantastic, creative things,” he said.

Tuition is $4,000 a year, with breaks for additional family members, and financial assistance is offered.

HOLY ROSARY’S CLASSICAL BENT

Holy Rosary Academy, located in Anchorage’s Midtown area, is a K-12 Catholic school that operates independently of the archdiocese. Catherine Neumayr, beginning her fourth year as principal, reports that the school’s enrollment, at 130, is “the best re-enrollment we’ve ever had.”

The school embraces a classical, college preparatory curriculum. Last year, three students achieved “commended National Merit scholar status” through the SAT testing program, Neumayr said.

Of last year’s two seniors, one received scholarships to all four Catholic schools to which he applied and one, termed a “super junior” by Neumayr, is younger and has elected to spend a year at the International Theological Institute in Austria before attending college.

Next year’s senior class has six students.

The Dominican friars at Holy Family Cathedral serve Holy Rosary Academy with cathedral pastor Father Anthony Patalano serving as spiritual director. The school celebrates a weekly Mass and next year all students will observe First Friday adoration with an opportunity to receive the sacrament of reconciliation.

Neumayr said tuition has held steady for the past five years at $5,000 for kindergarten through 6th grade and $6,200 grades 7th through 12th. Tuition includes a discount for parents who volunteer for “share hours” at the school. Neumayr said more than 90 percent of parents are active volunteers.

ST. ELIZABETH’S ARTISTIC EDUCATION

The first parish school founded in Anchorage, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton has served South Anchorage since 1980. At the beginning of last year, the school welcomed a newly renovated building, linking the parish and multi-purpose room to the school structure. During the year, religious artwork was completed which Principal Jim Bailey notes is “unbelievably beautiful.”

Bailey said people comment that the new addition “changes the atmosphere of the building and has a calming effect.”

A life-size statue of Jesus sitting with children sets the tone, and the unification of school and church facilitates weekly Mass, Lenten observances and prayers in the church.

Bailey said two new teachers now serve the kindergarten through 6th grade facility this year, as well as a new physical educational teacher, Spanish teacher and new supervisor of the before-and-after-school care program.

Tuition is $5,000, Bailey noted, with breaks for additional family members Now that the school is renovated, Bailey said next on the agenda is exploring the addition of a preschool program.

LUMEN CHRISTI

Principal John Harmon has returned for his second year as head of the 7th through 12th grade Lumen Christi High School, located adjacent to St. Benedict Church in Anchorage.

“Enrollment is up five percent from the end of last year,” Harmon reports, with at least 90 students expected in the fall, including 11 seniors. But, with a capacity for 120, there is still room for growth. Classes are capped at 20, but currently average about 15.

Small class size helps attract students from as far away as Girdwood and Palmer. Lumen also boasts international diversity, with students expected this year from Korea and Columbia.

Harmon noted that the school enjoys staff stability, which provides a sense of continuity for students.

Along with offering a new class on Catholic social teaching, this year the school has introduced a part-time enrollment that offers supplementary classes for home-schooled students or those in vocational education. Holy Rosary Academy offers a similar arrangement.

“And over the past few years, all of our seniors have been accepted at their first choice of colleges and universities,” Harmon said. That includes Georgetown, Gonzaga, Notre Dame and the University of Dallas among others.

Standardized test scores are higher than national and state scores, and more than 80 percent of Lumen’s teachers hold advanced degrees.

St. Benedict Church pastor Father Leo Walsh provides a steady clerical presence in the school, offering Mass on a weekly basis, as well as on the first Friday of each month.

“What we really hope to teach our students is to follow the footprints of God in their lives, and develop a sacramental awareness,” Harmon explained. Students are also required and encouraged to provide community service, working at Beans Café and in programs of Catholic Social Services.

GROWING IN THE VALLEY

Initially housed in a strip mall, Our Lady of the Valley School has entered its third year on the campus of Sacred Heart Church in Wasilla; it also serves parishioners from St. Michael Church in Palmer and Our Lady of the Lake Church in Big Lake. Enrollment is up to 42 students in kindergarten through 7th grade and the school is open to expanding to 8th grade, as needed.

A small but multi-tasking “administrative team” runs the school with Joyce Lund serving as both principal and fulltime teacher. Her husband Karl writes grants, interviews possible new teachers and carries out myriad projects part-time. Administrative assistant Karen Smith handles activities, parent liaison and finances.

Both Lunds bring an enthusiasm and commitment to Catholic education, as well as decades of experience in public school education, including time in the Alaskan Bush.

Students participate in daily chapel and weekly Mass, and a vibrant music ministry performs regularly at soup kitchens and assisted living homes. The school also supports an orphanage in Tanzania. These various outreaches are then related thematically back to classroom work.

New for this year is a classical education pilot curriculum that Lund researched and developed after attending a workshop at St. Mary’s College in Maryland. The program will be used in the 4th and 5th grade classroom.

Tuition at Our Lady of the Valley is $4,200 a year, with a break for families.

A school building is being considered, said Lund, and some fund-raising has started, but “we’re taking it slow and steady,” getting a grasp of what the community wants. Another potential project is the addition of a preschool.

All five schools begin the new year during the third week in August. For more information, contact the schools directly.


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