Hays Catholic schools making all the right moves
By DIANE GASPER-O'BRIEN
It might have been a different model than most Catholic school systems. But it worked. So the Catholics in Hays left it alone.
But when Hays USD 489 announced in June 2011 it would close Kennedy Middle School at the end of the following school year, an idea that had been thought about for years started taking shape -- in a hurry.
Plans began almost immediately for opening a Catholic junior high, thus bridging the gap between sixth grade, the highest grade at Holy Elementary High School, and high school at Thomas More Prep-Marian.
Full-time Catholic education for seventh- and eighth-graders in Hays became a reality in August when those two grade levels moved into the same building as high school students at Thomas More Prep-Marian.
Now more than halfway through its first school year, Principal Bill DeWitt said he is pleased with the overall concept of TMP Junior-Senior High.
"I think it's gone better than I could have hoped," DeWitt said. "There were a lot of unknowns, obviously. I think everybody involved in the process knew it wasn't going to be perfect. But I think it's worked quite well."
DeWitt said it's taken a lot of work by a lot of people to make it happen, but he gives a lot of credit "to the kids."
"We were fortunate to find a good staff," he said. "But I'm most proud of the kids. The high school students and the junior high all have been good about adjusting. Especially those eighth-graders, this is their third transition in three years."
Before the junior high could open, funding had to come from somewhere.
Jeff Brull, director of advancement at TMP, spearheaded the development of St. Thomas More Society, the funding arm for the junior high.
The junior high staff is not part of the TMP high school budget, so a five-year goal of $500,000 was set for running the junior high. Brull said as of now, approximately 76 percent of that goal has been met, less than two years into the process.
"I think we had the right people in the right places at the right time," Brull said of the process that has run smoothly. "The right people on the school board with a vision, the right people on administrative teams, the parents and alumni who wanted to see it happen and wanted to see the vision become reality."
For years, most TMP-bound students in the Catholic school system moved from Holy Family to Kennedy, the smaller of two public middle schools in Hays that was housed in a building owned by St. Joseph Parish.
"It worked well for that day and age," said Father Daryl Olmstead, pastor of St. Nicholas of Myra Church and bishop designate for the Heartland Parishes of Ellis County.
"They were always talking about starting a Catholic junior high," he said of the Heartland Parishes. "But as long as they had Kennedy, most of the (students) who were going to TMP were together there at Kennedy. And it worked."
Olmstead said while that model worked for so many years, the current setup is ideal for those wanting a Catholic education, especially because of specific Catholic faith lessons taught during junior high years.
"Seventh and eighth grade is a time when we teach (the sacrament of) confirmation," he said. "In our parishes, we do that once a week for about an hour. But to be able to teach them in Catholic school every day helps (students) to understand the Catholic faith a lot better."
"Here, they are incorporating faith into every aspect of education, not just in religion class," he said. "There is so much merit to a Catholic education. Anybody who has graduated from here will tell what they have learned from the family, service, friendship and faith here. And we did not want to see that become part of Ellis County history."