Published September 8, 2005
Debra Orr spent the first week of school at the new Notre Dame Academy holding her breath and hoping she had not forgotten anything essential to the school’s opening.
By Friday of that week, however, things were still running smoothly and even the car pool had been successfully managed down to a six-minute run. So the principal took this as a sign she could breathe a sigh of relief.
Orr, the principal of the Marist-sponsored independent Catholic school, along with parents, faculty and staff of Notre Dame and representatives of the Marist order, gathered for a grand opening and ribbon-cutting celebration at the school on Sunday, Aug. 21.
In a large open room surrounded by classrooms, those in attendance feasted on catered Mexican food as well as hot dogs and potluck side dishes brought by parents.
The day represented the fulfillment of a dream for Orr and many others who wanted Catholic education for their children, but were not in close proximity to archdiocesan schools.
This was also not Orr’s first experience with opening a school. A former teacher and administrator at St. Pius X High School in Atlanta, she was recruited to help open Blessed Trinity High School in Roswell as an assistant principal in 2000 and also served as an administrator at Pinecrest Academy in Cumming, where she assisted in the opening of the high school.
Notre Dame Academy sits in a quiet office park off Peachtree Industrial Boulevard and is a renovated 48,000-square-foot office building that has been completely transformed into a Catholic school environment.
Orr had heard from many parents who wanted to provide their children with a Catholic education but who were met with a lack of space at Catholic schools. Orr herself had experienced this disappointment.
“When I was opening Blessed Trinity, I tried to get my son into Queen of Angels (the neighboring elementary school), but there just wasn’t enough space,” she said.
So armed with a support team of parents and faculty, Orr set out on a “journey of faith” that led to the opening of Notre Dame.
The bright smile on her face as she cut through the green and yellow ribbons on Aug. 21 was a testament to the hard work it took to create the school, which already has 180 students enrolled in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade. The tuition at the school is $7,500 annually.
Many teachers and parents say the principal is their reason for coming on board. Julie Derucki, dean of students for first through sixth grades, has had 14 years of experience in Catholic schools.
“I had such a belief in what Debbie Orr was doing and in this vision to go into an area where there was a need and to create this Catholic school,” she said. “Now to watch people come in and truly be thankful, it’s amazing.”
Faculty and parents started at a “grassroots level” in creating the school, Derucki said.
“We all put in 14-hour days. We were scrubbing, cleaning, whatever needed to be done,” she said.
The first day of school was Aug. 15.
In addition to her role as dean, Derucki also teaches literature and religion. Her classroom sits in the “horseshoe” where classrooms encircle a media center. Her cozy classroom beckons children to discover a love for books, and Derucki’s own enthusiasm invites them to discover a love of learning.
Joann Hohmann’s son is in the eighth grade at Notre Dame. Though he will only be at the school for one year, Hohmann said he was intent on coming. Derucki, one of his former teachers, was a major catalyst in his wanting to come to Notre Dame.
“My son flourished in (Derucki’s) class,” Hohmann said. “I knew her moral character and that she had a great passion for teaching. It gave me an immediate confidence in the academics here.”
It wasn’t just Derucki’s enthusiasm that convinced Hohmann.
“You really see the Holy Spirit at work here. You just know that He is working with this group of people to make this school a success,” Hohmann said.
The evidence of the work of the Holy Spirit came in early May when priests of the Marist order, who run one of the oldest and most well-established Catholic schools in metro Atlanta, agreed to sponsor the school.
Marist School principal Father Joel Konzen, SM, said their agreement calls for the order to supply a Marist to serve on the new school’s advisory committee, to provide a priest to offer Mass and the sacrament of reconciliation, and to share the principles of a Marist education with the Notre Dame Academy community. These principles call for students to become faithful disciples of Christ and to imitate Mary, the mother of Jesus. Orr said these core values, along with the other Marist principles, work well with Notre Dame Academy’s curriculum.
In a press release, Father Konzen said his order is eager to help, since one of the Marist Fathers’ principles is to aid lay people in their religious efforts and to enlist their services in the building up of a Marian church.
“One of the Marists’ traditions from our founding is to support the laity in the church with whom we share the ministry of Catholic education,” he said. “It’s consistent with our mission and the vision of Father (Jean-Claude-Marie) Colin, our founder.”
The relationship will have some limitations, however. The Marists will not offer financial support to Notre Dame Academy nor will Notre Dame Academy students be given any special admission consideration with Marist School. However, Father Konzen said that enrollment is a factor in why his order is willing to offer assistance to an elementary school.
“More Catholic elementary school availability is critical for the continued healthy enrollment of the Catholic high schools, especially now that there are six such high schools in the metro Atlanta area,” Father Konzen said.
“Having the Marists involved just gives us a confidence for the community,” Derucki said. “People are walking in daily enrolling their children. People are not looking for a school that will be open for five years; they are looking for longevity, and this is just an extra boost to that confidence.”
The Catholic identity at Notre Dame is essential, Orr said. When discussions about opening the school first humbly began at Orr’s home, there was talk about opening a school that would be private but not necessarily Catholic.
“But I’m a Catholic school educator, that’s what I do,” Orr said.
That’s when Orr, who has a master’s degree as a reading specialist from Georgia State University and a master’s add-on in educational leadership from the University of Georgia, wrote to Father Konzen. In addition to weekly Mass and the opportunity to receive the sacrament of reconciliation, students in all grades have 15 minutes of chapel time daily.
“We have to teach the children how to pray,” Orr said. “That’s just so important.”
After the journey of faith that Orr and others have taken toward opening Notre Dame Academy, she has seen that her goal of offering Catholic education to those who were previously unable to receive it is becoming a reality.
“My goal is to provide a desk for every child that wants a Catholic education. We don’t want to turn people away,” she said.
“Every child has a bit of Christ in them. Our responsibility is to find it and bring it out in them,” Orr said. “If we create a loving and safe Catholic environment for them, the sky’s the limit.”
Notre Dame Academy is located at 4635 River Green Parkway in Duluth. For more information visit the Web site at www.ndacademy.org or call (678) 387-9385.