By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published August 20, 2015
DULUTH—Notre Dame Academy High School opened its doors to the class of 2019 this week as the newest Catholic high school in the Atlanta Archdiocese and the only one in booming and diverse Gwinnett County.
The new school is more than just a new building, new students and new faculty, school leaders said, but about building traditions together.
“We have to rely on each other. We have to trust each other. Everything we do is for the best of the students,” said Principal Brian Marks. “We are leaning on each other.”
Days away from the opening, Marks kept busy with a punch list of items to finish the new building, like where to put paper towels dispensers in the restrooms.
The high school expands the reach of Notre Dame Academy, which has already been serving pre-K through eighth grade in a school affiliated with the Marists and the International Baccalaureate Programme.
Down the hallway, where a blue stripe stretches from one end of the building to the other, Lynne Bombard decorated her bulletin board. A long-time public school teacher, this is her second year at Notre Dame Academy where she will move from teaching middle school math to the high school. Bombard has seen lots of first days of school, but still gets anxious as it approaches. Teachers and students both are starting something new, and together they’ll be molding the new high school’s customs, she said.
“I have a stake in this. You want to make sure it is done right. It should feel like the first day all over again. It’s exciting to start each year,” she said.
The independent Catholic high school began classes on Thursday, Aug. 20, with 31 freshmen students and a dozen faculty members. There are now 10 Catholic high schools in the Atlanta Archdiocese, three archdiocesan and seven independent schools.
‘The school walks the talk’
Four of the Barcena children attend the school, from first to ninth grades. William, the oldest, enrolled in 2006, and is a member of the inaugural freshman class. He is looking forward to being a class that “sets the record and the bar” by which future students will be measured. Already familiar with the rigorous classroom work at Notre Dame, he is excited that the school has hired an athletic director and has coaches lined up, especially for baseball, he said.
For his dad, Frank Barcena, the school has held true to its promises.
“It is a great value for the money spent. The school walks the talk. The student is the number one priority,” he said.
As a new high school, its program has been crafted in line with current educational recommendations. Marks said the school day will begin at 8:30 a.m., not earlier, because medical associations report teenagers need more sleep. Each student will receive a tablet and a laptop computer, one for typing and research, the other for lean-back reading, because of how students interact with technology. The learning commons is designed to promote student collaboration with movable walls and work centers. Tuition at the high school is $13,950.
“We want to create something new and unique here,” said Preston Bazemore, the new athletic director and biology teacher. He was part of the first group of faculty when the archdiocesan Blessed Trinity High School, in Roswell, opened its doors in 2000. Preparing for Notre Dame High School to open, he inspected the new football jerseys, holding them up for a closer look.
This expansion kicks off Notre Dame Academy’s second decade. The school opened in 2005 in a former call center office building in a business park. Now the campus has expanded onto 21 acres next to the elementary and middle school facilities on River Green Parkway.
In the first phase of a multi-year campaign, a $10 million building project was completed. The 12-room high school was erected and named Kavanaugh Hall for donors who purchased the land. Students will watch construction workers put the final touches on a multipurpose gymnasium and fine arts building, scheduled to be completed in early 2016. It will grow into a four-year high school as this class progresses and new freshmen enter.
Mother’s love launched Notre Dame
Notre Dame Academy began with Debra Orr, who remains the head of school. She was spurred to open the school when her son could not get a seat in a Catholic grade school because it was filled to capacity, she said. A mother will do anything it takes to do what is best for her child, she said. Getting a Catholic education was her top priority, said Orr, a trained social studies teacher who taught for many years at St. Pius X High School, Atlanta, and served as an administrator at Blessed Trinity High School and Pinecrest Academy, Cumming. She tapped into a demand. The school opened with 162 students. There are some 551 students now.
Orr feels strongly Catholic schools are important to the church’s future. Studies show that graduates of Catholic schools are more involved with the church as adults, she said.
“When you combine knowledge and values, that gives you tools for life. One without the other is empty,” said Orr.
Orr said she hadn’t imagined a high school would be necessary. But in 2013, she crunched the numbers and again realized there were more graduates from Catholic middle schools than seats available in Catholic high schools. Another factor is the increasing difficulty to drive from Gwinnett County south to either St. Pius X High School or Marist School. She said the drive can take 45 minutes or it can take an hour and a half, without any warning. Its status as an International Baccalaureate school for pre-K through fifth grade will expand into the middle and high school. IB is generally considered a more rigorous program than traditional coursework, as it encourages cultural awareness and student inquiry.
Gwinnett County is a booming area for the metro Atlanta Catholic community. With more than 800,000 residents, it is estimated to be about 18 percent Catholic, according to the archdiocesan Planning Office. As many as 171,000 residents are believed to be Catholic, reflecting a sizeable Hispanic community. Some of the largest parishes in the archdiocese are in the county, notably Our Lady of the Americas Mission in Lilburn, which has about 7,000 registered families.
A lifeline for family new to Atlanta
Despite the large number of Catholics, the archdiocese doesn’t plan to open schools in the county. Instead, Superintendent Diane Starkovich said future initiatives will come either from parishes willing to support a school or independent efforts.
A 2008 strategic plan shifted the effort from the archdiocesan to the parish level, said Starkovich. A plan developed with educational experts from The Catholic University of America spotlighted parish schools as a strong financial model, rather than regional grade schools, she said. The archdiocesan Office of Catholic Schools and the Planning and Research Office would help any parish to brainstorm about opening a school and provide the tools to weigh the decision, she said.
Independent Catholic schools have a loose affiliation with the Atlanta Archdiocese. There is a multi-step process by which an independent school applies to be recognized as a Catholic school. Among the steps in the lengthy process, the archdiocese affirms that the religious instruction in the independent school meets guidelines set by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and that its instructors of religion are appropriately trained, Starkovich said. Independent Catholic school leaders are invited to join regular meetings with other Catholic school principals.
Notre Dame Academy also stays connected to the church through its affiliation with the Marists. Representatives of the religious order serve on its board of directors. The values of the Marists, formally known as the Society of Mary, guide the school’s mission and are incorporated into the education, Orr said.
It is a new school year in a new school for the three students of the Wilwayco family. Members of St. Benedict Church, Johns Creek, the family weighed whether the oldest, Austin, should enter an IB program at a public high school or the same program at Notre Dame Academy. The small class size at Notre Dame tilted the scale, with Austin saying, “You get to ask more questions. Most of the time at the end of class, you didn’t get to ask questions because there are so many.”
Kathleen Armstrong said she is often asked why she is putting her son in an untested high school program. She is so moved by what the school has meant to her son and her family, she cries.
“In all honesty, it is the job they have done previously. The decisions they have made, the way they run the school, we are so blessed. It is such a blessing. They care for our children,” said Armstrong. Her family attends St. Benedict Church.
When the family arrived in metro Atlanta from New Jersey, the school was a lifeline, she said. Her children couldn’t get a seat in an archdiocesan school. Other independent Catholic schools were too costly. She found Notre Dame Academy when Jack entered third grade. Now he’ll blaze a trail as a freshman in high school.
In an email, Jack said, “The experience of being a part of this legacy is quite unique. We as a class have the opportunity to pave the way for the younger classes and establish school spirit that will be carried out through many coming years at Notre Dame High School.”
For more information visit www.ndacademy.org.