Today’s West Valley fifth-graders could be the first students to attend the newest Catholic high school to open in the Diocese of Phoenix.
The target startup date for Saint John Paul II High School is the 2018 fall semester after capital campaigns and building. The school set to be on diocesan property next to St. Thomas Aquinas Parish and School in Avondale would be the first diocesan high school to open in the lifetime of its student body. Notre Dame Preparatory opened in Scottsdale in 2002.
Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted announced the decision for Saint John Paul II High School April 21, less than a week before the first anniversary of the saint’s canonization. The late pontiff visited the Valley in 1987 during the time the bishop worked with him in Rome.
“To build a Catholic high school in the far west valley, the most rapidly growing area of our state, is a clear statement about the importance of young Catholics in the Church’s life and mission today,” said Bishop Olmsted. “I am delighted that our people know this and are ready to make the sacrifices required to prepare our youth for their unique and vital mission in society, as friends and witnesses of Jesus Christ.”
“The feedback that I have received about the name has all been highly positive. It seems to resonate with nearly everyone,” Bishop Olmsted told The Catholic Sun.
Cynthia Scheller, principal of St. Thomas Aquinas and a Catholic school mother of four, called the high school’s new name “the present with the bow on it. It tied it all together.”
She lauded the completeness of the bishop’s announcement. It gave closure to the date, name — a recommendation from the diocesan Presbyteral Council — and vision for higher Catholic education in the far West Valley, Scheller said, leaving few unanswered questions.
Talk of a West Valley high school has circulated for many years, particularly since Fr. Kieran Kleczewski became pastor of St. Thomas Aquinas in 1998 and, upon surveying parishioner interest, lobbied the diocese to buy land for an elementary and high school. St. Thomas Aquinas had 1,000 families at the time, but he knew he was building for a parish that would ultimately support up to 6,000 families. The parish serves just under 5,000 now and registers at least 50 new families every month.
He knows St. Thomas Aquinas isn’t alone in its growth. Fr. Kleczewski named almost every West Valley parish with similar experiences plus population projections west of the White Tank Mountains.
“They’re all becoming big parishes with lots of young families,” Fr. Kleczewski said.
Some 308 St. Thomas Aquinas children received the sacrament of Confirmation in early May at three different Masses. Upwards of 800 are enrolled in religious education across the grades.
The area’s Catholic elementary schools are growing too. St. Thomas Aquinas will complete its gradual transition to a doubled-graded campus in two years. St. John Vianney has two classrooms for three grades and a strong base of donor support. They’ve increased support through tuition tax credits by nearly 42 percent in the last five years. That includes another 131 donors in that time span.
Church leaders like Fr. Kleczewski agree that Catholic education roots students in their faith and makes them aware of their call to be in the service of others. It also gives them a strong academic foundation for higher-level education while creating graduates who are clearly focused and disciplined, he said.
Preparing for the future
Vitality studies, focus groups and feasibility studies gauged churchgoer interest for a Catholic high school throughout at least 11 nearby parishes. They narrowed down suitable locations to near I-10 and Loop 101 and Avondale. The Diocese of Phoenix already had undeveloped land on much of St. Thomas Aquinas’ 32-acre campus, which eased the decision.
“People are just excited that it’s going to happen,” said MaryBeth Mueller, superintendent of the diocese’s five high schools and 29 elementary schools.
Roughly 70 St. Thomas Aquinas parishioners currently commute 22 miles each way to Xavier or Brophy college preparatories. There’d be more from the West Valley, but not every eighth-grader can work out the logistics. Mueller said the community is eager to hear about the next steps for Saint John Paul II High School.
Fundraising will begin soon as part of a comprehensive diocesan-wide campaign to unfold over the next five years, according to a Diocese of Phoenix press release. Estimated costs will be released then.
Some cost-saving measures are already in place, however. The high school will be sandwiched between Estrella Mountain Community College and the Southwest Valley YMCA. Shared use agreements with both will allow school athletes to use an Olympic-sized swimming pool and athletic fields.
“There’s some infrastructure done that will be wonderful for the new school,” Mueller said.
Steering committees and project timelines are on the horizon.
“It is wonderful to see the great support from our priests and people for Catholic education, and especially to hear from many of their readiness to make sacrifices so that our young people can be well prepared to live their faith and witness to the faith before others,” Bishop Olmsted said. “I look forward not only to having a new Catholic high school in the far West Valley but also more young people getting a Catholic education throughout the diocese.”
Scheller called St. John Paul a great role model for all Catholics. She said it will be a wonderful thing for West Valley Catholics to mirror what he stood for in the world.
More than 14,000 students currently attend one of the Diocese of Phoenix’s six high schools, 28 Catholic elementary schools and 28 preschools. They receive a rigorous, faith-filled education that prepares them for the challenges of higher education and a competitive world. An estimated 99 percent of students graduate from high school; 97 percent go on to attend college.