COTTONWOOD — The first several graduating classes from St. Joseph School in Cottonwood will soon be the only ones able to recall its original campus.
School leaders broke ground for new facilities March 22 between Sunday liturgies at Immaculate Conception Parish, an appropriate time considering the new campus will share grounds with the church.
St. Joseph School has sat 2.7 miles southwest of the parish in a converted ranch house on donated land since it opened in 2006. It transformed from a one-room Montessori school serving 12 students to a traditional kindergarten through eighth-grade campus of 130, and a preschool that still teaches using the Montessori method.
Administrators have simply run out of space and see the move as a step toward envisioning a more efficient future. It will eliminate two bus trips to get the students to school Masses and allow all of the students to learn under one roof again. The sixth- and seventh-graders already learn on the school’s future land inside a temporary building.
“It is a joy to have the beginnings of our Catholic school being built here on the main campus of the parish,” said Fr. David Kelash, pastor. “The school is a great way for evangelization. We have 40 percent of the students who are not Catholic and it is one way to let the word out that it is OK to be Catholic.”
Administrators are hopeful that a reunited campus sandwiched near Immaculate Conception and All Souls Catholic Cemetery will open by Christmas break. Fr. Kelash looks forward to easier and more frequent classroom visits once the parish and school campuses are one. He said it would bring more life and unity.
Parish altar servers, some of whom are students and alumni, carried shovels during the Mass’s closing procession to St. Joseph’s future campus.
Their younger peers in plaid and green uniforms, along with teachers and parishioners who have supported the school, joined them at the edge of the parking lot.
A few ventured onto the hard-packed dirt. Heavy construction equipment has already cleared and flattened the land.
During the blessing, Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted said that all teachings must have as their final purpose true knowledge. He blessed the land and the crowd and prayed that the benefits of a sound education may quickly be spread throughout the world.
The school has already seen its first graduating class — who are now old enough to be finishing their freshman year of college — return as guest speakers in St. Joseph classrooms and at parish pulpits. The school draws students from Clarkdale, Camp Verde, Jerome, Sedona and the greater Verde Valley.
“They had all kinds of wonderful things to say. They’ve done well,” said school board member Jeff Leonard.
Merrily Pychinka, who serves as the school’s business manager among many other informal titles depending on the task, credited Ted Foley from Sedona and his grown children for making the dream of expanding the school a reality. St. Joseph’s future home received a combined $500,000 from them.
It will have two preschool classrooms, 10 classrooms and a courtyard with the idea of a multipurpose center in the future. Principal Greg Kirkham said the design is intended to maintain the community feel.
Beyond being a small school, students have faith buddies, peer buddies, a strong school board partnership and a greater community of benefactors including the Ann Gillen Foundation whose partial sponsorship of nine students each year — one student per grade level — makes tuition manageable.
“We’ve always had to put two nickels together to make anything happen,” Pychinka said.
Campus leaders are excited for the future. They’ve grown steadily, increased the number of Catholic students enrolled and have found a few who chose to become Catholic. Administrators are eager to launch more aggressive marketing knowing that they will have the space to accommodate new students.
Kirkham said the school’s strengths are the passion for the teachings of Christ. “It’s a school where everybody believes in it.”