TONTITOWN — School supplies, new uniforms and sports physicals sound like the ordinary back-to-school checklist for students. But, for students attending Ozark Catholic Academy, northwest Arkansas’ first independent Catholic high school, heading back to school is anything but ordinary.
As doors open Aug. 16, it will be to a collective cheer as students, staff, faculty, parents and local leaders celebrate the highly anticipated first day of school. A ribbon-cutting ceremony will kick off the inaugural year and honor all those individuals — past and present — responsible for making the dream of a Catholic high school a reality.
In fact, this very day is the one John Rocha, head of school at OCA, has been working toward for the past two years. Ever since Rocha was hired to helm the project, he has been prepping for the day students would walk through the doors in their crisp, new uniforms emblazoned with the school’s signature crest.
“Our goal has not been to just open the doors, but to open them well,” Rocha said.
And for Rocha, a founding staff member of Western Academy, a private boys’ school in Houston, that means building strong relationships, a strong community and creating student leaders.
One way Rocha proposes to do that at OCA will be through an advisory program. “Advisory is one-on-one mentoring with a faculty member and student. Building this relationship will help build stronger relationships among staff and students. We believe strong relationships both with faculty and other students will help build a strong culture for the school. We also want students to continue to build relationships at home,” Rocha added.
Another feature that distinguishes OCA is a student leadership school trip to Auxier, Ky., planned at the end of August. Rocha said students will work with the Hand in Hand ministries immersion experience to teach participants what real world needs and wants are and how to serve with compassion and generosity.
“This will provide a Catholic world view for those students in understanding social justice issues and the drug epidemic that plagues this part of the country,” Rocha said. “For teenagers it is easier to help others, but we will challenge them to come back and truly love those around them in small actions, as well.”
An additional goal Rocha has for the new school is to represent the diversity of the surrounding community in the student enrollment. The school, beginning this year with both ninth and tenth-grade had a goal of 25 students for the first 2018-2019 academic year. Presently, OCA has 23 students enrolled with six of those students representing the Hispanic population, according to Rocha.
As a regional school, based at St. Joseph Church in Tontitown at least temporarily, students are coming from Rogers, Fayetteville, Bentonville, Tontitown, Springdale, Cave Springs and as far away as Subiaco.
One mother, Norma Ascenscio of Rogers, said she decided on OCA for her daughter because of the faith component.
“Natalie has been in a Catholic elementary school and I want her to be sure of her faith. I attended an open house and an OCA student asked me if my daughter was going to attend OCA. She said she had been praying for Natalie.
Often when I’m silent God speaks,” she said. “In today’s world, so many things occupy first place in their lives, but I want my daughter to be a person who loves God and is loved by God.”
Another student, Isaac McClinton of Fayetteville, will be leaving another area private school to enter OCA as a sophomore.
“We had hoped and prayed for a Catholic high school in northwest Arkansas since we experienced the fruits of having our children attend Catholic school in their primary years,” said his mother Beth McClinton. “It has been 80 years since a new Catholic high school has opened its doors in Arkansas and northwest Arkansas has the highest number of registered Catholics in the state.”
While there may be many and varied reasons that students can now attend OCA, everyone can agree that many volunteers have spent countless hours, giving of their time, prayers and money to the project. Mark Breden of Fayetteville got involved when he was working at Procter and Gamble Corporation. Newly retired, Breden serves as the acting president of the board of governors for OCA.
“I saw this project as something I could lend a hand with,” Breden said. “Northwest Arkansas companies when recruiting families to the area want to be able to emphasize that there are great school options. OCA, I think, fills a big missing hole.”
Breden also feels OCA will emphasize building wisdom and character that reflect Catholic educational principles. “We will accomplish this through our curriculum and approach to teaching as well as a diverse and inclusive student body reflecting our world today,” Breden added.
The college preparatory curriculum, emphasis on service, Catholic identity and idea of educating the whole student attracted several families to make the decision to enroll at OCA.
Emory Carter, another student who has been homeschooled for the last eight years, will be entering as a freshman.
“Our plan had always been to homeschool in high school,” mother Becky, who converted with her husband to the Catholic faith, said. “But when OCA opened up, they had a great curriculum and philosophy and are wholly Catholic and it became a very attractive option.”
As the days ahead will prove, opening the doors to the school is just the beginning. Yet, for those who have spent 20 years on the project, it is also a dream realized.
“I just feel blessed and privileged to be a part of this historical moment,” McClinton said. “I would not want to miss out on it for anything.”
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