Catholic schools address hearts, minds and souls of Alaska youth

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As school bells ring across Southcentral Alaska, some 500 students will have a uniquely Catholic school experience. Enrolled as students in the five Catholic schools operating within the boundaries of the Archdiocese of Anchorage, these students will sit in classrooms displaying a crucifix, pray together, attend school Masses, and be reminded each day of their relationship with Jesus.

All of the schools of the Catholic schools have these basic attributes in common, but each is unique in its own way, whether because of curriculum emphasis, geography, class size or grades served. Each of the five schools is eager to offer tours and answer any questions parents have, and all of them offer informative websites. For a closer look at each, and at their various tuition rates, fee schedules, tuition assistance, volunteer opportunities and events, visit their websites below.

St. Elizabeth Ann Seton School

St. Elizabeth Ann Seton School, a ministry of the parish in South Anchorage, is the archdiocese’s oldest school with the largest enrollment. Since 1983, the kindergarten-6th grade school (now including pre-kindergarten) has provided “an excellent faith-based education,” said principal Kathy Gustafson.

Since many graduates move on to Lumen Christi High School, which provides 7th through 12th grade Catholic education, a new transportation plan has been added this year to assist parents who have children in both schools.

“A van will be picking up Lumen Christi students at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton School and bringing them to Lumen Christi,” Gustafson explained. The van will then return the older students back to the grade school in the afternoon, and transport grade schoolers back to Lumen Christi for after-school sports.

“We are excited that Lumen Christi is providing this service for our families,” Gustafson said.

St. Elizabeth students attend weekly Mass, are trained in various liturgical ministries, and participate in charitable outreach throughout the year. Traditions like the May crowning of the statue of Mary are observed, sacramental preparation is done in the classroom, and the pastoral staff from the parish make frequent classroom visits. This year, both pastor Father Scott Medlock and parochial vicar Father Robert Whitney are new faces in the school.

Gustafson said the school begins the year at 170 students, with limited availability in some grades. This year saw a 3 percent tuition hike, the first in three years. Tuition is $5,670 a year for kindergarten through 6th grade. Additionally, the school offers before-and after-school care as well as an after-school homework club.

Long-time administrative assistant Peggy Dennehy retired this year, as did popular kindergarten aide Daria Seckers. Abby Heath will replace Seckers. Beth Lottridge now serves as office secretary and librarian, and the school has added Rachel Androski as art instructor.

The recent addition of a pre-kindergarten program has proved successful. Gustafson said the class was full last year at a maximum 20 students, and the teacher, Melissa Myers, “was nominated for BP Teacher of Excellence her first year teaching in Alaska.”

For more information, visit akseas.com.

Lumen Christi High School

Lumen Christi High School has been a ministry of St. Benedict Church in Anchorage for more than two decades.

Brian Ross, beginning his fourth year as principal, said the school is guided by the core values of “faith, family and excellence on a daily basis. And we share these core values with St. Elizabeth Ann Seton School, where many of our incoming seventh grade class attended.”

Ross added, “We often say we are ‘one school, two buildings’ in which families can get a high quality Catholic education from pre-K to 12th grade.”

A popular feature of the seventh-through 12th-grade school is that because of its small size (65-68 students, down slightly from last year) everyone has an opportunity to participate in sports, which are part of a Sports Leader ministry program. A national program used by over a hundred Catholic schools and dioceses in the U.S., the ministry is based on four pillars: virtue, mentoring, ceremony and Catholic identity.

“Our athletes are expected to pray together before and after each game and practice,” Ross noted. “Often our teams attend Mass together before games and travel. Our soccer team will start this season with a rosary rally.”

Tuition at Lumen Christi ranges from $7,600 yearly for junior high to $8,000 for senior high.

But, said Ross, “I would like to emphasize that, thanks to benefactors, we are able to offer very generous financial aid to families in need. I tell parents, there may be reasons why Catholic education is not an option, but cost should not be one of them.”

 Innovations at Lumen Christi this year include “intensives,” 6-8 week classes, with topics like culinary skills and hunter safety. A first semester debate team and a second semester drama production, an art program, a great student-teacher ratio, a student leadership board, and small class sizes combine to help Lumen Christi students experience a quality Catholic education.

For more information, visit lumenchristiak.com.

Our Lady of the Valley School

A pre-kindergarten through eighth grade school on the campus of Sacred Heart Church in Wasilla, Our Lady of the Valley serves that parish and the parishes of St. Michael in Palmer and Our Lady of the Lake in Big Lake. Principal Joyce Lund said this year the school is reflecting on “the variety of ways seeds of learning are implemented.”

The school, with an enrollment of about 85, emphasizes “rigorous classical academics, music ministry, a sports program and outreach,” Lund said.

Innovations this year include newly installed fencing around the perimeter of the campus as a safety feature, and a newly-cleared recreational trail which will be used for fitness and cross-country training.

Seeds were not just a metaphorical feature at the school this year. As part of a service project, students grow plants under grow lights, and in June transplant their products to the Trinity Lutheran Community Garden near Palmer. During the summer students and parents worked to transplant, weed, water and harvest abundant vegetables, which benefited the Palmer Food Bank.

“The seeds not only grew vegetables, but nurtured the seeds of compassion and outreach to God’s family in our community,” Lund noted.

A new soccer program, under the coaching of Jeff Latta, will involve practice at a Palmer field four times a week and it joins the established cross-country and track and field program. Preschool teacher Samantha Spies will work with the youngest students in the pre-kindergarten program.

Tuition begins at $4,890 for one student in a family, but varies depending on family size and family volunteering.

The school’s music ministry for Mass will expand this year to St. Christopher Mission in Willow, St. Philip Benizi in Trapper Creek and St. Bernard in Talkeetna. Hand chimes will be added to the music ministry through funds raised by a plant sale.

“Planting the seeds for the love of learning, infused with faith and grounded with virtues, allows our students to live, learn and love as Jesus did,” Lund explained. “Our goal is to nurture young Catholics to grow in their faith and embrace their role as disciples of Christ.”

For more information, visit olvwasilla.com.

St. Mary’s School

Teri Schneider has taken the helm as full-time principal this year at Kodiak Island’s Catholic school, a ministry of St. Mary Church. Schneider was born and raised in Kodiak, graduated from the school she leads, has a master’s degree in education and 27 years of public school experience.

After retiring, she said “opportunities aligned and the Holy Spirit prompted me to see the opportunity to serve as a part-time principal with Brian Cleary.” Now, after sharing duties with Cleary, Schneider has obtained principal certification and has assumed the position full-time.

Schneider is proud of her faculty, which she says has over 126 years of combined teaching experience.

“When we speak to the mission of our school, ‘to nurture the divine,’ it is something we do each and every day,” she observed. “We find that precious good in each one of our students, family members, co-workers and help them develop it and share it. Our excellent education begins with each individual child and their spiritual development.”

Sperry Ash joins St. Mary’s team this year as a full time teacher. Schneider said he brings an Alaska Native heritage to a school with many Native students, as well as a background in the Orthodox seminary.

For the past few years, declining enrollment forced the school to combine three grades in one class with one teacher. This year, Schneider said, “we are breaking them out into two grade levels for grades third-fourth, fifth-sixth and seventh-eighth.” Grades first and second have previously been together, while pre-K and kindergarten will continue in separate classrooms. Enrollment this year is approximately 70 students from about 55 families.

Tuition runs from $3,590 to $4,280 depending on the class year. Preschool tuition is dependent on how many hours a week a student is enrolled.

St. Mary’s emphasizes core content, but offers music — both voice and instrumentation — an arts program that introduces students to a range of mediums, and daily Spanish classes for all grades. It’s traditional at the school for older students to provide mentoring in reading and other skills to younger students.

For more information, visit smskodiak.org.

Holy Rosary Academy

Founded by parents in 1987, Holy Rosary Academy, located on Fireweed Lane in Anchorage, is a K-12 independent Catholic school.

The school is not part of the Archdiocese of Anchorage school system, but operates as an independent Catholic school with permission from the archbishop.

Principal Lisa Williams, in her second year in the position, said “our classical education is founded in reading the great books, engaging with the great ideas that have intrigued humanity throughout the ages.”

The school’s website states, “students learn to live a vibrant Catholic life through Mass attendance, prayer, study, camaraderie and apostolic work.” The school uses the tools of the “trivium,” a course of study that follows the classical path of grammar, logic and rhetoric.

Enrollment for the upcoming school year is at 140.

Innovations this year include an outdoor studies program for middle and upper school. This, says Williams, follows several years of retreats incorporating outdoor activities such as hiking, leadership and team building to harness the “magnificent wilderness” available to Alaskans.

“Two members of our upper school faculty have certifications as wilderness first responders, and quite a few of our faculty have been working with the Eagle Eye retreats by the Brothers of St. John throughout the years,” Williams explained.

She noted that the uniqueness of Holy Rosary lies in its Catholic classical identity. Students learn to present both sides of an argument and synthesize their conclusion, thereby assessing a controversial subject with objectivity. A student presents a thesis at a public forum using their skills in rhetoric, “the crown of the student’s education,” Williams affirmed.

Holy Rosary’s staff remains steady, with just one new faculty member this year. Paige Skevington, new to Alaska as a military spouse from Kansas, has a background in teaching reading and will teach fourth grade.

Tuition ranges from $7,650 to $9,250 depending on class level. However, costs can be lowered based on family involvement and financial assistance.

For more information, visit hraak.com.


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