Top Story: Catholic junior high becomes reality
By DIANE GASPER-O'BRIEN
A longtime dream come true for many, a junior high school at Thomas More Prep-Marian High School received a high grade from administrators and other supporters following the completion of its first semester.
TMP, the only Catholic high school in the western part of the state, added seventh- and eighth-grade classes to its curriculum in the fall after Kennedy Middle School closed at the end of the 2011-12 school year.
Kennedy was the smaller of two public middle schools in Hays -- both served sixth through eighth grades -- and TMP-bound students predominantly had attended Kennedy.
With its closure, pastoral leaders of Heartland Parishes of Ellis County and the Diocese of Salina gave TMP the go-ahead to begin planning for a junior high, giving Hays an inclusive Catholic education for preschool through 12th grade. Holy Family Elementary School serves preschool through sixth grade, and TMP, ninth through 12th.
"It was on the radar when I was a student here in the late 1980s," TMP Principal Bill DeWitt said of the idea of starting a Catholic junior high. "But it wasn't practical because of the structure of the public school system."
With Kennedy closing began the process of starting the new school, ranging from adding curriculum and staff for seventh- and eighth-graders to scheduling, construction and classroom rearranging.
In August, 121 students started school in the inaugural year of TMP Junior High.
"I think it's gone better than we had hoped," DeWitt said. "It wasn't perfect, but I don't know that any school year is perfect."
"I love having them here," he added. "I think they bring a great energy to the place."
The junior high operates in one wing of the building, while high school classes are in the rest of the main building, as well as classrooms in Al Billinger Fieldhouse. About the only time their paths cross is during lunch period.
That format will remain the same until further notice, said Father Daryl Olmstead, pastor of St. Nicholas of Myra Catholic Church in Hays and the bishop's designate pastor on the school board for Hays Catholic Schools.
"Nothing has changed since the decision was made to open the junior high at TMP," Olmstead said.
The decision to add seventh- and eighth-grade levels at TMP was made before Bishop Edward Weisenburger was ordained in May.
Since then, the bishop has toured the school buildings in Hays, and Olmstead said HCS will remain status quo as the bishop gathers "all the information to make a proper decision."
Part of that decision will involve the financial aspect of running a junior high, whether on the TMP campus or in the former Kennedy building, which is owned by St. Joseph Parish.
More than a thousand donations have been made to the Thomas More Society, a fundraising arm of the TMP Endowment Association, for the junior high.
The society raised $900,000 the first year and has received $1.27 million with commitments for an additional $2.45 million during the next four years.
"What we need to do is to make (the junior high) sustainable," said Jeff Brull, advancement director at TMP. "We need to have an annual giving component that is a big part of the budget for the school, funds to operate and to accommodate all these new students.
"It feels good to have the first year under our belts and feel we did very well the first year," Brull added. "We need to maintain that momentum."
Keeping the junior high students at TMP for a while is just fine with DeWitt.
"This wasn't the plan some people wanted, but pure and simple, it works," he said.
DeWitt said he hoped for approximately 100 students the first year.
The current enrollment of 121 includes 77 seventh-graders, which will be the first class to go all the way through its 13 years of Catholic education when it graduates in 2018.
"They have a tremendous year going," Olmstead said. "The outlook is for the enrollment to increase next year, and we hope and pray that continues."
The entire project got a boost last spring when more than $100,000 was raised at the annual Auction for Christian Education in April, designated specifically for uniforms and equipment for the new junior high.
"We've got a lot of kids in activities, and we have a uniform for every single one of them," DeWitt said.
Other pluses in the past year have been the completion of a new gym at Holy Family in the former worship space of the old Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church, as well as the option to purchase a used bus from All-American Tours. Monarch teams also use the gym at Kennedy.
"We have enough buses, and we have the use of three gyms," DeWitt said. "I'm not sure what we'd be doing right now if all those things hadn't happened. You can call it what you want, but no doubt the Holy Spirit is guiding us."