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Diocese studying schools in northwest Arkansas

High school committee in the second phase

Published: April 22, 2006   
Today's pre-schoolers, like these hunting eggs April 13 at St. Raphael Preschool in Springdale, could be among the first to attend St. Raphael School if it is built. Sitting with their baskets are Billy Dederick (left), Emily Ware, Sebastian Andrade, Tania Vazquez and Tanner Narvaiz.

The Diocese of Little Rock continues to study the possibility of opening a Catholic high school in northwest Arkansas.

In December Bishop J. Peter Sartain appointed the Northwest Arkansas Catholic High School Committee, headed by Deacon Chuck Marino, to conduct the second phase of planning for a potential high school for eighth to 12th grade.

Meanwhile, Father John Antony, pastor of St. Raphael Church in Springdale, said the diocese's largest parish is considering opening an elementary school, which could serve as an additional feeder school for a regional secondary school.

Currently, there are only two elementary schools in northwest Arkansas: St. Vincent de Paul in Rogers and St. Joseph in Fayetteville. Insufficient enrollment potential was the reason a national consulting firm did not recommend building a high school in 2004.

"For us to start this school it's going to have to be top of the line academically," Marino said. "You can't do that if you don't have enough students."

The potential Springdale elementary school could be a crucial factor to whether or not a high school is built, Father Antony said.

"Once people are convinced of the value of Catholic education at the elementary school level then they're more likely to want to continue to receive and benefit from that value through high school," he said.

The 17-person committee from northwest Arkansas parishes includes seven members from the previous committee and 10 new members, including three Hispanic representatives.

According to the committee's first e-newsletter sent out April 11, the bishop asked the group to develop a mission statement, assess the consultant's study, set benchmarks and a timeline and develop a financial plan.

Marino, a member of St. Raphael Church, said the purpose of the committee is to gather data to present to the bishop.

"It's our job to give him the information so he can make the best decision as to whether to go forward," he said.

Marino, principal of St. Joseph School in Fayetteville from 1996 to 2000, said a process to build a school usually has four phases: first, a feasibility study to assess interest; second, a case study to gather additional statistics; third, a capital campaign; and finally, the building of the project.

The first phase in 2003, led by Father Andy Smith and Dan Beshara both of Bella Vista, looked at the feasibility of a school, including enrollment projections and the interest of parents. The feasibility study was conducted with the assistance of Meitler Consultants of Hales Corners, Wis.

The study determined it was feasible to build a high school, but the enrollment was not where it needed to be in 2004, Vernell Bowen, superintendent of Catholic schools, said. The Meitler study said, "This idea needs to be kept alive until the enrollment potential allows for the opportunity to provide a quality and affordable Catholic school education."

Since December, the committee visited northwest Arkansas parishes and several Catholic high schools, established regular communication with interested parishioners and began to gather information for a case study, which would include the bishop's four objectives for the group.

Marino said the case study would include a statement of need, demographics, administrative structure, potential curriculum and programs, specifics on a building site and facility.

"This process is to build a case study to determine if we should move forward," Bowen said.

Marino and other committee members toured five Catholic high schools, including Catholic High School in Little Rock, in February, March and April. Others were visited in Memphis, Tenn., Tulsa, Okla., Nashville, Tenn., and Springfield, Mo.

An e-mail address -- -- was set up in February, and northwest Arkansas parishioners are invited to subscribe to an e-newsletter to be sent out regularly. A Web site also is being developed in English and Spanish to go live in May.

Father Antony said the potential elementary school in his parish was on the agenda of the last parish council meeting April 18.

"It's something that's been talked about for some time now, so it's not anything new," he said. "Some of the steps that we've been taking in the past several years have been in preparation or with thought of an elementary school."

One of those steps was adding a preschool for 3 and 4 years olds in 2004. Now in its second full year, the program has 42 students and is considered successful.

The next step is a $4-million building project. The parish is seeking approval from the diocese at this time and hopes to begin construction as early as June. The new parish center would include a gymnasium, parking lot and commercial-grade kitchen capable of feeding several hundred students, Father Antony said.

A parish steering committee also was established to study the feasibility of adding an elementary school. The group is scheduled to hand out a parish survey April 29-30 to gauge interest in a school, look at what would be affordable tuition and see if a commute would be a problem for parents, he said.

The proposed building project would be completed by May 2007. That could mean opening a kindergarten, first and second grades and possibly third grade by the fall of 2007. If successful, the school would add a grade each year up to fifth grade, the pastor said.


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