By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published May 16, 2019
DULUTH—Notre Dame Academy senior Emily Mlakar is saying farewell to a place where her ideas helped start school traditions when none existed before.
Mlakar shaped student life as the school established its house system with names, mottos and colors to help unite students.
“I didn’t like it when some kids weren’t heard just because they were quiet. I was quiet once upon a time. I know how that feels,” she said. “I wanted to make sure everyone had a voice.”
Mlakar will switch her tassel as a member of the high school’s first graduating class. Twenty students will reach this milestone at the inaugural commencement ceremony at the independent Catholic school on Friday, May 31.
“It’s up to you and the people you are working with to create something new,” she said about being the first.
Notre Dame Academy only served students in Pre-K3 through eighth grade when it first opened in 2005. Today, there are about 150 high school students.
Mlakar smiled at the memory of teachers cooking pancakes for her freshman classmates during a lock-in retreat at the school. The connection with teachers has grown stronger.
“Instantly, teachers were friendly,” she said. “All the teachers have a passion. Frankly, they are my role models. My teachers have helped me recognize what kind of person I want to be.”
Art teacher Megan Lentz has been with the student since they arrived on campus. “It’s going to be really strange without them,” said Lentz. “It’s going to be like some of my kids are missing. There will be tears.”
The spirit of the school
Notre Dame Academy was started by a mother who wanted a Catholic education for her children. Debra Orr championed this school as the founder. She saw families face daunting waiting lists as a desire for seats at Catholic schools in the northern suburbs of Atlanta exceeded classroom space. She is retiring at the end of the school year.
It started as a primary Catholic school with the International Baccalaureate program. From pre-kindergarten to 12th grade, there are now 535 students. The school is affiliated with the Marist religious community.
Orr said she hopes students hold on to their adventurous spirits that led them to risk attending a new school, along with deepened faith lives and strong academics.
“I hope that they continue to have the confidence to take risks. Look at where it’s already got them,” she said in an email.
The 21-acre school campus, tucked in a business park, grew along with the high school students. Kavanaugh Hall opened in August 2015 as high schoolers walked in the front doors. Six months later, the George Student Center was dedicated with its athletic and performing art facilities and a cafeteria. Its sports teams began to compete on a new athletic turf field in 2018.
“You feel the spirit of positive energy and joy,” said principal Tracy Verrigni. A veteran public-school administrator, Verrigni joined the staff in the fall as the assistant principal then became principal.
Students tried new sports to put teams in play
Students competed in nine sports during year one. Even freshmen who weren’t interested in sports put on a uniform to ensure there were enough players to field a team. Today, students compete as members of 13 teams. Also, there are 21 clubs offered at the school.
Luisa Smolynsky has been a standout athlete. In her final year, she competed in volleyball, basketball and soccer. She is the first academy student to get an athletic scholarship. Smolynsky will play basketball at Belmont Abbey College in North Carolina. Down the road, she could see herself being a coach and using a business major to work as an accountant.
“I wanted to be the first. I wanted to be the first to achieve things,” said Smolynsky. Being part of something new at a school excited her. She said she saw it as a chance to shape the school and “set an example” for the lower school students.
Without a deep pool of players, teammates faced challenges together.
“Here it is so small, you can try any sport you want. It gives you a chance to be open and close to other people,” she said.
Diversity enriched classroom conversations
Smolysnky, who was adopted from Colombia, and others noted how Notre Dame students share a variety of interests and family backgrounds. She learned English as a preteen. She dreamed of playing on the U.S. women’s soccer team but switched her passion to basketball. She is the daughter of Emily and Andy Smolynsky, who both work at the school. They attend St. Brendan the Navigator Church, Cumming.
Mlakar, whose father is white and mother is Japanese, said it may surprise people to understand the diversity in the school.
“We were all different but that’s what made us the same,” she said, talking about friends who visit family in England, Ireland, France, Korea, Vietnam, Colombia and Peru, or teachers with both immigrant backgrounds and deep roots in the United States.
The mix of backgrounds among students and teachers ensured students were not secluded from the world, she said. Mlakar will attend George Washington University, in Washington, D.C., to study international affairs.
About one out of three students in both high school and primary grades are African American, Hispanic, European, Asian or East Indian according to the school. Some 20 different languages are spoken in the homes of students.
Mlakar speaks Japanese and tutors on the weekends. She said she was drawn to the school by its small size, its global outlook with the International Baccalaureate program and the Catholic identity. In her sophomore year, Mlakar was baptized. It was a decision she’d weighed for a few years.
The Catholics she knew seemed “genuinely happy not because everything was perfect in their lives but because they were appreciative of their blessings, confident in their belief in God and chose to be happy,” Mlakar said.
The daughter of Fumiko and Gary Mlakar, she volunteers at her parish St. Brigid Church. Her brother, who attends the school, was also baptized recently.
Global diploma program challenges students
A standout feature of the school is its incorporation of the International Baccalaureate program in a Catholic school setting.
The globally recognized International Baccalaureate program aims to develop students “who have excellent breadth and depth of knowledge—students who flourish physically, intellectually, emotionally and ethically,” according to the International Baccalaureate Organization.
Seven students will graduate with an IB diploma. Ethan Kearns, son of Michael and Jeanette Kearns, is among them.
“You always have to talk in your classes. You can’t just disappear into the back of your classroom,” said Kearns, speaking from the state championship track meet in Albany. He competed in discus.
Kearns plans on attending Davidson College in North Carolina and studying environmental science. He hopes to be a doctor. He said he earned a lot of A grades in high school and took on the two-year IB program as a challenge.
“It definitely has pushed me. There has been some late nights and weekends,” said Kearns, whose family attends St. Monica Church.
Being in the first senior class made the high school experience unique. Everything the class of 2019 did became a precedent for others, he said.
“There is no one to follow behind, so you have to figure everything out yourself,” said Kearns.