COLUMBIA — Columbia's first Catholic high school is taking shape south of the city, on property overlooking a park and a lake. But it won't be done in time for the start of school.
So, on Aug. 29, the 60 freshmen and sophomores at Father Tolton Regional Catholic High School will begin classes at Columbia College. The college president, Gerald Brouder, is on Tolton's executive committee and offered space on campus as a short-term fix, said Tolton Principal Kristie Wolfe.
Name: The school’s namesake is Father Augustine Tolton, who was born into slavery in Ralls County, Mo., and later became the Catholic Church’s first African-American priest in the United States.
Address: 1305 E. Gans Road
Cost: Annual tuition is $5,900 for Catholic students, $7,900 for non-Catholics. Financial aid and merit scholarships are available. This is because the three Catholic parishes in Columbia make significant contributions to the school on a regular basis, Principal Kristie Wolfe said. An annual $250 technology fee will cover the lease payment and warranty on laptops, and students must pay an athletics fee of $50 per sport per season.
First day: Aug. 29
Fall enrollment: 50 freshmen and 10 sophomores
Future enrollment: This fall, Tolton will be open to students in grades nine and 10. Juniors will be added in fall 2012 and seniors in fall 2013. Wolfe’s goal is to have a student body of 400, with 100 in each grade.
Mascot: Tolton Trailblazers
Colors: Silver and blue
Athletic offerings: In fall, girls' and boys' cross country, boys' football, girls' softball, girls' volleyball and girls' golf (boys soccer will be added in 2012); in winter, girls' and boys' basketball, boys' wrestling and girls' cheerleading; in spring, boys' baseball, boys' golf, girls' and boys' tennis, girls' and boys' track & field and girls' soccer.
Students will be able to move into the new building by late September or early October, Wolfe said, and construction will be finished by the end of October.
Wolfe has adopted a spirit of adventure about spending the first few weeks at Columbia College.
“We’ll have some good stories to tell, like remember when we had biology class in the gym?” she said. “We’re going to have an adventurous fall. It’ll be fun, and we’ll do it together."
The building emerging on East Gans Road at U.S. 63 still has a number of needs, including floors, trim, toilets, sinks, water fountains, furniture and equipment.
Wolfe said that first snow, then rain, then excessive heat hampered construction. "Mother Nature has challenged us a lot this year," she said.
A school takes shape
Tolton is about a 15-minute drive from downtown Columbia. The overall design of the school is geometric, all points and angles.
The main section has three stories, and a wing on one side has two. Bricks on the building's exterior are in shades of orange and red. Off to one side, a metallic cross gleams in the sunlight.
Straight through the main entrance of the building, tall, rectangular windows flank a grand circular one — the telltale signs of a chapel under construction.
Classrooms jutting off the main hallway seem to be the most finished. Their walls are partially painted in muted green and gray.
Windows overlook the slightly hilly terrain of A. Perry Philips Park, which includes the 40-acre Perry Philips Lake. Standing in what will become the chapel, students, staff and visitors will be able to look down onto the scenic area from the raised elevation of the school. On this day, a couple walked on the pier toward the water, and a runner rounded the bend of a lakeside trail.
There were no buildings or roads in sight, only tall grass, bushy green trees and the rippling, deep blue lake.
Creating a Catholic high school
The idea for the school emerged more than 10 years ago in talks among Catholic families throughout the community.
Our Lady of Lourdes Interparish School, formerly Columbia Catholic School, is available for grades kindergarten through eight. But the only regional option for families who wanted to send their children on to Catholic high school was Helias Catholic High School in Jefferson City.
A committee of leaders from the Catholic community formed to assess community interest and jump-start fundraising efforts. Ground was broken in May 2010.
So far, volunteers have raised more than $10.5 million of the total $14 million needed to build the school, Wolfe said.
"It will take a little bit," she said. "But we'll get there." In the meantime, she is ready to finance the difference as needed.
Wolfe came on board a year ago. As a Catholic, she attended parochial school during her childhood and has more than 17 years of experience working in Catholic education. She spent the four years before coming to Columbia leading Bishop Carroll Catholic High School in Ebensburg, Pa.
Wolfe said she arrived a year ago with a passion for Catholic education and ideas about how it should adapt for the 21st century.
“Everyone encounters in their lives a resistance to change, the notion that we’ve always done it this way,” she said. “Nobody wants to move forward just because it’s always been that way. To have the opportunity to create something without that — to say were going to do it right from the very beginning — is just a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
For Wolfe, this means a commitment to integrating the latest technology in her classrooms.
Technology a priority
Tolton will be the first school in Columbia to adopt what is known as a 1:1 laptop program, she said. An annual $250 technology fee covers the lease payment and warranty on a personal laptop for each student.
Most of the textbooks used at Tolton will be electronic and web-based, and students will be able to interact with the text and each other online while completing their assignments.
“Kids today interact with the world electronically, and that’s how they will function in professional positions in the future," Wolfe said. "Everybody comes to work and gets on (the computer). This is where our work is, so I think it’s in our students’ best interest to have them go through their education that way.”
Wolfe said the laptop program will save the school money because there will be no need to buy expensive, hardcover books.
Although Wolfe is trying to be forward-thinking about incorporating technology into the school, she wants the curriculum to stay traditional.
“We’re not doing anything fancy or newfangled,” she said.
To graduate from Tolton, students must complete four years of theology classes — an addition to the state's graduation requirements.
But throughout other subjects is a Catholic frame of mind.
“There are a lot of issues in the scientific community, for example, that have an ethical component to them,” Wolfe said. “Cloning is a great example. I want our students to learn about that with the ethical perspective consistent with our faith built into the lesson."
That affected how teachers were hired. "I didn’t just want a good science teacher," Wolfe said. "I wanted a good teacher who understands the ethics of it and is going to convey that to our students.”
Athletic opportunity draws students
Parents were drawn to Tolton, in part, because of the variety of athletic opportunities available to the smaller pool of students.
“If you’re from a small town and you come to Columbia and want to play sports at Hickman or Rock Bridge, you probably won’t be able to play unless you're a high-level athlete,” Tolton parent Jeff Guinn said. “At Tolton, you can play basically whatever you want.”
Sherry Hockman transferred her sixth-grader, Paige, and eighth-grader, Alex, into the Catholic school system from Christian Fellowship School partly because of athletic opportunities. She was pleased that at Tolton, her children could play sports without having to travel to St. Louis and Kansas City during the week for games.
Tolton will be sponsored by the Missouri State High School Activities Association, a statewide organization that reinforces rules within high school athletics and organizes state tournaments. Association schools can only play each other, but there are a variety of schools and plenty of flexibility in scheduling.
The association membership was important to Athletics Director Chad Masters.
“It gives us some validation that we are like any other school,” Masters said. “It gives our kids access to the pursuit of those athletic dreams — that last-second touchdown pass to win the game, the last-second basketball shot for the title. All those things are there.”
Wolfe said athletics factored strongly into planning for the school. That’s what motivates kids, she said.
“They don’t jump out of bed in the morning for trigonometry class; they jump out of bed in the morning because they have a big track meet or a football game or a basketball tournament," Wolfe said. "When they look back on their high school experience, the things that they remember are the relationships and the community events that revolve so much around high school athletics.”
Tolton will join Calvary Lutheran High School in Jefferson City in its football, baseball and softball programs, so both schools can have enough participants to make up teams. Wolfe said she thinks this will be temporary.
Area schools don’t see Tolton as competition
Given how small Tolton is compared to Rock Bridge and Hickman high schools, district officials don't anticipate a noticeable shift in population, said Michelle Baumstark, community relations coordinator for Columbia Public Schools. Last year, Rock Bridge had 1,820 students and Hickman had 1,942.
“We are excited to have another educational opportunity available to students in Columbia,” Baumstark said.
She said that one of the major things larger, public schools can offer that smaller, parochial schools often cannot is a wider array of electives and special programs. Because of costs, small schools may not be able to offer a class in something highly specialized, such as Latin, if only a few students are interested, Baumstark said.
Baumstark said the district looks at Tolton as a good alternative for certain students.
“Our job is to educate students," she said. “We want to do what’s best for students and their families.”
Higher enrollment expected
That Tolton will have 60 students when it opens is seen as a success.
Wolfe credits personal recruiting; she went to Columbia schools and parishes as well as those in Boonville, Moberly, Mexico, Fulton, Ashland and Pilot Grove. Masters accompanied her on some visits.
“They’ve made payments, and they’ve registered their kids for this school that promises to be a great high school," Wolfe said. "It doesn’t exist yet; it has no traditions; it’s not even done yet, but they understand what we’re about and believe strongly in that opportunity that they were willing to commit to that.
"The fact that 60 people in the Show-Me State signed up for something that doesn’t exist yet is impressive," she continued. "I think we’ll double next year.”