Preparations for new regional school moving ahead in Hopkins, Minnetonka

| November 7, 2012 | 1 Comment

Preparations for a new regional Catholic school are under way in the western metro area, where the first open house for the yet-to-be-named school was set for Nov. 8 and a principal search has begun.

St. John’s Catholic School in Hopkins and Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic School in Minnetonka will become the new regional school in fall 2013. The pre-kindergarten through grade 8 school will be housed in the current IHM school building, said Father James Liekhus, pastor of St. John the Evangelist and St. Joseph parishes in Hopkins.

The building, which was remodeled with added classroom space in 2004, can best accommodate the current enrollments of both schools — 108 preK-6 students at St. John’s and 200 preK-8 students at IHM, said Father Liekhus, who will serve as moderator of the new school. Father David Ostrowski, pastor of the IHM parish, will serve as chaplain.

As moderator, Father Liekhus will be the liaison between the school’s governing board of directors and its principal. An advisory council comprised of members from both the Minnetonka and Hopkins parishes also will serve the school.

“By forming the regional school, one goal is to pool resources together and provide the best learning environment for our students within our community of Catholic parishes,” said Mark Pihart, the father of three children currently attending St. John’s School, where he serves on its School Advisory Council.

The decision to form the new school was prompted by changing demographics, including a declining number of school-aged children in the area that has contributed to declining enrollments at St. John’s and IHM, Father Liekhus said. There also is increasing competition from local charter schools.

The process leading to the decision also was consistent with the archdiocese’s 2010 strategic plan, which calls for more collaboration and efficient use of resources among parishes and schools, he said.

“The great thing about the Catholic Church is that we’re not a fend-for-yourself institution. We can work together when we need to,” Father Liekhus said. In this case, he added, “a regional school was the way to go.”

Moving ahead

The discussions leading to the regional school began more than a year ago with the formation of a task force that included members of St. John the Evangelist (into which St. Joseph in Hopkins will merge on Jan. 1) and IHM as well as three other parishes with schools: St. Therese in Deephaven, St. John the Baptist in Excelsior and Our Lady of the Lake in Mound.

The group — which included the pastors and other parish and school representatives — met regularly to talk about demographic and financial trends at the parishes and schools, Father Liekhus said, and it received input from the archdiocesan Office of Catholic Schools, Catholic Finance Corporation and the Teamworks consulting firm.

After further discussions with the schools office and the archdiocese, the St. John’s and IHM schools decided to move ahead with the regional school, he said.

Seven steering committees currently are meeting to facilitate the transition: advancement, co-curriculars, extended day, climate for learning and facilities — all of which include school parents — as well as administration and academic excellence, which have school staff as members.

“We have invited all families to participate in informational meetings and we also invited all interested parents, faculty and parishioners of St. John’s, St. Joseph’s and IHM to volunteer their time and talents at the committee level,” said Pihart, co-chair of the advancement committee. “We have also included families, students and faculty in the school naming process.”

Parishioners and family members were invited to nominate names for the new school, and an advisory council selected five finalists. On Nov. 6, students and staff at both schools were set to vote on the names; the top vote-getter will be forwarded to the new school’s board of directors for review, with a final recommendation to be sent to the archbishop. The new school name is expected to be announced by mid-December.

Transportation is also an important issue for the school community, said Father Liekhus, who hopes to minimize the impact on students currently attending St. John’s by having a bus pick them up at the school to take them the four miles to the campus in Minnetonka. The new school also must set a tuition structure, he said, and tuition assistance will continue to be made available.

The schools’ current staff will be invited to reapply for positions at the new school, he said.

History of collaboration

This isn’t the first time the parishes of St. John the Evangelist, St. Joseph and Immaculate Heart of Mary have collaborated on Catholic education. From 1980 to 2004, they sponsored John Ireland School, which had campuses at all three locations.

The school deconsolidated amid disagreements about moving to a single campus. St. John’s and IHM subsequently established separate grade schools, while the St. Joseph campus became home to the Main Street School of the Performing Arts, a public charter high school.

After the new regional school is formed, the St. John’s school building will continue to be used by the parish for the foreseeable future, Father Liekhus said.

The new school’s committee members and parish leaders are hoping to learn from the success of Community of Saints Regional Catholic School in West St. Paul, which launched its inaugural school year this fall. The school — a collaboration of St. Matthew in St. Paul, St. Michael in West St. Paul, St. John Vianney in South St. Paul and Our Lady of Guadalupe in St. Paul — had a waiting list for enrollment at the start of the school year.

In the meantime, Father Liekhus said, keeping school families informed about the regional school’s progress is a priority.

School families are updated in a variety of ways, including through newsletters, bulletin updates, email blasts and weekly flyers sent home with students, he said.

“I think most parents are concerned about losing the identity and culture of the respective schools,” said Joann Meyer, a member of the IHM School Advisory Council and co-chair of the regional school’s advancement committee.

“The [regional] School Advisory Council and the board are very sensitive to this issue, and the committees will continue to work hard to make sure that we respectfully combine the cultures of St. John’s, St. Joseph’s and IHM into one regional school,” said Meyer, who has three children currently attending the IHM school. “It feels as though the support for the new regional school increases every day.”

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