‘It’s really happening’: West Valley’s first Catholic high school set for start of classes in August

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AVONDALE — The concrete walkways have yet to be poured, shelves for library books haven’t been erected and work stations in the science labs need to be installed, but much of the work is complete on St. John Paul II High School. Within a month, the halls of the far West Valley’s first Catholic high school will be filled with the sound of teenage students eager to learn and have fun with their classmates while growing in their faith.

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“It really is (exciting),” said Matthew Gonzales, the school’s director of admissions and marketing, during a July 11 tour of the nearly finished building. “To be in the building, to see the walls, the paint, the floor, it’s like, it’s really happening.”

St. John Paul II Catholic High School
Grand Opening

When: 6 p.m., Aug. 21
Where: 3120 N 137th Ave., Avondale (map)

All are invited to the dedication of the new St. John Paul II Catholic High School by Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted. A reception will follow immediately.

RSVP by Aug. 14 to:

vramirez@jp2catholic.org
jp2catholic.org

Planned to handle the area’s rapidly expanding Catholic population, especially among Hispanics, the school will open for classes Aug. 13 and host a grand opening Aug. 21, during which it will be blessed by Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted. During the tour, the silent, nearly complete facility stood in dramatic contrast to the atmosphere that will overtake it in a few weeks, but the enthusiasm bubbled over from Gonzales and Fr. Fernando Camou, the school’s chaplain, as they discussed the new facility.

“It’s exciting to think our whole mission is to bring the children into a greater awareness of the Lord and how the Church teaches the Eucharist is the source and summit not just of our faith but all Christian activity,” said Fr. Camou. “So, all our activity, whether it’s learning, sports, plays or something else, it all has its source and its completion in the Eucharist.

Occupying 107,000 square feet on the 23-acre tract the diocese purchased a number of years ago next to the existing St. Thomas Aquinas Parish and School, the new high school will feature 23 classrooms, five science labs, three dual classrooms that include a movable partition, a chapel, band and choir room, drama and dance studio, gym, cafeteria, staff offices, patio, library and full-time media room.

Behind the scenes tour with Sr. Mary Jordan

Tuition will include books, something Gonzales noted not all schools offer. Students will be furnished with Google Chrome books, a laptop centered around Google applications.

The school began accepting student applications last October, and Gonzales said it expects to open its doors to between 150 and 200 freshmen and sophomores in the first year. As those classes advance as juniors and seniors, more underclassmen will arrive, giving St. John Paul II its first graduating class in spring 2021. By that time, Gonzales said, the student body is expected to be around 1,000.

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The current structure along with the gymnasium is the first of four phases of building. Next will come outdoor athletic fields, followed by a practice gym and additional classrooms, and finally an auditorium.

St. John Paul II will be operated by the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia. The order has over 150 years’ experience in Catholic education and presently serves in 45 schools. Principal Sr. Mary Jordan Hoover, OP, has 20 years administrative experience in Catholic schools. She is being joined by three other Dominican nuns and a lay staff of 12-15.

The influence of Dominican spirituality is evident throughout the high school.

For example, the hallways were built as wide as possible, a feature intended to foster community and human dignity.

“Even the stairwells are wide so people can be walking back and forth without feeling like they’re going to cram,” said Fr. Camou. “Sister believes a student should be able to bump into his friends and say, ‘Oh, hey how you doin’?’ and have a conversation without having to crunch. Also, tighter spaces are not as safe.”

Perhaps the most innovative aspect of the “community” approach, though, will be the use of a “house” system to group students for intra-school competition and service projects. Introduced by Sr. Mary Jordan at her previous school — St. John Paul the Great in northeastern Virginia — and already in place at Seton Catholic Preparatory in Chandler, the system arranges lockers by “households” instead of grade levels or specific activities. Students, including siblings, are placed in a “house” all four years.

Meet the patron saints of each house

“It’s a family identity,” added Fr. Camou. “They learn to mentor one another; younger ones look up to older ones. There is this real sense of fellowship not by class but across grades, interest groups. That’s the very Catholic vision of community.”

Or, as Sr. Mary Jordan said during the school’s groundbreaking more than a year and a half ago:

“We are building more than a building — we are building a culture.”