COLUMBIA — It’s about 8 a.m. on a Wednesday in mid-October, and the commons of Fr. Tolton Regional Catholic High School is filled with students talking.
In the midst of the crowd of teens dressed in slacks, Tolton polo shirts and button-down shirts, Principal Kristie Wolfe mounts the platform at the back of the room.
“Stand up for the morning prayer,” she shouts over the students’ voices.
The room falls silent as the students begin the prayer they recite every morning before school begins.
"Give us grace and strength in facing the challenges of this day, following your call upon our hearts, knowing that you only call us to be faithful. Amen." Their voices blend as they complete the prayer and recite the Pledge of Allegiance.
When Kristie Wolfe started as principal in 2010, a little less than a year before the school opened to students, she came in with a vision for the school — "rigorous academics, strong Catholic identity, high standards of behavior and dress."
Now that Tolton, located in south Columbia, is in its second year, with students and teachers having been on campus for a year this November, she strives to guide and maintain the vision she has been working to establish since she arrived.
Entering with vision
In spring 2010, Wolfe received a letter announcing that the Catholic Diocese of Jefferson City was searching for someone to open a new Catholic high school. It was her dream job — opening a Catholic high school in the vision of what she thought it should be. She knew that if she didn’t try for the job, she’d regret it.
At the time, Wolfe had been principal of Bishop Carroll Catholic High School in Ebensburg, Pa., since 2007, where she had worked as an English teacher for seven years before that.
She played a key role there in expanding the school’s curriculum and strengthening its spiritual emphasis, said Jerry Stephens, current CEO at the school. The vision she had then would be the same one she would have when taking the job at Tolton three years later.
Wolfe put the letter in her briefcase, took it home and applied for the job.
Jon Bequette, president of Tolton’s Advisory Council, met Wolfe during her interview process when he was on the original executive committee for the school. His wife was on the principal selection committee.
Bequette saw passion, energy and vision in Wolfe, traits he said marked her as a leader.
"She was sent to us at the exact time we needed her," he said.
Bequette’s daughter, Kelsey, is a sophomore at Tolton. A typical afternoon for her includes coming home, grabbing something to eat, chatting with her father and then going to her room to study, he said. To Bequette, it’s a sign that she’s working hard.
He saw academic rigor that first year as well, when students at the school who might not have had to work as hard in the past found themselves having to spend time studying.
"In every class, it was clearly a step up from what they had been doing in eighth grade," he said.
Tolton identifies itself on its website as a college-preparatory school and is in the process of phasing in Advanced Placement classes. Bequette said that for next year, there are plans to hire another English teacher and offer a second foreign language. Each student who attends Tolton receives a laptop, English teacher Paulina Tramel said.
"I think our classes are a little more rigorous, and our expectations are a little bit higher, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing at all," Tramel said.
Next year when the school has its first class of seniors, Tolton will have a completed curriculum in every subject, Wolfe said.
Right now, part of the challenge for the school is earning the community’s trust. The school hasn’t yet established a tradition of getting students into college and having good test scores. And until Tolton has evidence of these kinds of measures, it’s still a leap of faith for parents to send their children to school there, Wolfe said.
"A big test for us is going to be getting those seniors into some good colleges next year," she said, and also making sure "that they have the skills and abilities to get into the schools they want to go to."
'Strong Catholic identity'
When Wolfe became principal at Bishop Carroll in Pennsylvania, she especially wanted to see the school’s Catholic identity strengthened.
"The more firmly we adhere to that identity, the truer we are to our own mission, and the more attractive we will be to the right kinds of students," she said.
In the year before Tolton opened, Wolfe sifted through a stack of applications, looking for people with a vision to incorporate faith into the classroom — not all Catholic, but those she felt were active in their own religious life.
Bryndyn Crutcher, who teaches math at Tolton, sent Wolfe an email about potentially coaching there someday. At the time, he worked at Helias Catholic High School in Jefferson City. Although he hadn’t intended to start at Tolton immediately, he ended up meeting with Wolfe. Through a series of emails, meetings and phone calls, he heard her excitement and desire to develop Christian leaders at Tolton.
It was hard for him not to catch her vision. He joined the faculty at Tolton the year it opened.
Wolfe strives to guide the school's faith-based identity. The school celebrates an all-school Mass on Monday mornings, plus two optional Masses before school on Tuesdays and Fridays, all of which bring Father Mike Coleman to campus three days a week to perform his duties as chaplain.
Students recite the school prayer each day before the school day starts and pray before individual classes. In addition to celebrating Mass, Tolton also holds other worship services.
"Everything we do is Catholic," administrative assistant Mary Creach said. "It’s not just something, it’s not just a name on the door and you come in and we’re just like a public school. This is a Catholic school."
'High standards of behavior and dress'
Tolton’s first athletic event, a freshman girls volleyball game, happened on the evening of the first day of school in 2011. A group of boys wanted to take their shirts off for the game and paint "Tolton" on their chests.
Wolfe refused. She was expecting a huge crowd of community members, and told the boys that if they did, people at the event would assume that was a standard for the school.
It wasn’t that they could never do something like that, but at the time, Wolfe felt everyone was watching what kinds of precedents the new school would set.
When Bequette met Wolfe during her interview process, she told him, his wife and Donald Novotney, superintendent of Catholic schools for the Jefferson City diocese, a story about a summer reading program she used at Bishop Carroll.
She had benched the undefeated football team’s quarterback and running back for two weeks when they didn’t complete their summer readings. She had met with the students multiple times to talk with them about it.
"I thought that said something," Bequette said. "You’ve got principles, and no one is immune from them. These are the expectations that we’re setting forth. You’re going to meet them."
As principal, Wolfe has to balance the high standards she believes a faith-based school should have with the realization that she, her staff and her students all make mistakes.
"So my discipline has very high standards, but there’s definitely mercy and compassion in there," she said.
Carrying the vision forward
A sign at the entrance to Wolfe’s office reads "Love what you do." On the wall next to her desk hangs a sign that reads "Go and set the world on fire — St. Ignatius."
Jon Bequette has watched his daughter grow since she started at the school. He’s seen her dedication to class work and desire to make straight A’s. She spent three to four days a week at the school last summer preparing for basketball season in the fall, he said.
"We all need strong role models, and for me, Kristie Wolfe is someone I want my daughter to role model herself after in her faith and in her work ethic," he said. "And I think I already see that."
While about 115 students attend Tolton now, it could eventually take on as many as 400, which would mean about 40 teachers, Wolfe said. Development Director Jill McIntosh said the school anticipates next year’s freshman class to be about 60 students, which will put enrollment at about 175.
And as the school grows in size, Wolfe faces her own challenges. With more students, teachers and staff, she has to manage a growing number of people while continuing to keep the school focused on its vision.
"It’s easy to be a leader when you only have six or seven teachers and 50 students," Wolfe said. "I could spend a lot of time talking about big, grand ideas because it’s not too hard to manage them. But the more people we bring on, the more management I have to do, and my challenge is to make sure that I am balanced. It’s always about the balance."
Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.