Laura Meyer is a Hickman High School senior and a National Merit Scholar semifinalist and is involved in the National Honor Society and other service-related activities.
Claire Schaeperkoetter is a West Junior High School freshman who plays basketball and soccer on Rock Bridge High School teams.
They don’t know each other, but they have a common bond. Both went to Columbia Catholic School from kindergarten until eighth grade — when they were faced with making a decision about where to continue their education. Both decided to go to Columbia Public Schools for high school rather than make the daily 40-minute, one-way commute to the nearest Catholic high school, Jefferson City’s Helias.
The two teenagers are among the majority of Columbia Catholic students whose families choose convenience and proximity over a continued religious-based education. Of the 50 students who were eighth-graders at Columbia Catholic last year, 15 attend Helias. The other 35 are enrolled in Columbia Public Schools.
In a recent survey conducted by the Columbia InterParish Study Committee, 73 percent of Catholic families said they would opt to send their children to a Catholic high school if one existed in the city.
Until such a high school is built, Catholic parents and students in Columbia will face the choice between the public schools or a long commute to continue their Catholic education.
Laura said she and her family thought public schools would be a better option for high school because more activities and honors programs are offered.
“There are resources you can get at the public high school that you can’t get at the Catholic high school,” she said.
Her transition a few years ago wasn’t too hard, she said.
“I was a little nervous,” Laura said. “It’s like normal new-school feelings, but then everyone finds their niche, which is what high school is all about.”
In addition to her other activities, Laura is involved with Helping Our Peers Everywhere. The group aims to help students new to the district get comfortable with their surroundings, and members of the group serve as peer counselors. Her involvement in the group, she said, is related to memories of her own transition, but that’s not the single driving force. She was more interested in helping others, she said.
“It wasn’t like I was a lost little lamb trying to shelter other lost lambs,” Laura said. “I just like to work with people, and that’s a way of doing that.”
Claire made her transition to public school three months ago, and she remembers it being a little more nerve-racking.
“Before school started, there was so much anxiety about if I would be accepted,” she said. “The scariest thing was the anticipation of the first day.”
On that first day, Claire said, she was fortunate enough to know some people in her classes. She said she now feels comfortable at West Junior High.
Claire’s mother, Ann Schaeperkoetter, remembers the experience even more vividly. She said Claire was nervous the first day, but after it was over, she felt relieved.
“By the end of the first day, about three-fourths of the anxiety was gone, and by the end of the week, I’d say almost all of it was gone,” she said.
Columbia Catholic School Principal Patrick Darcy said the school tries to prepare students for the transition in a variety of ways. The school posts the honor rolls from Hickman, Rock Bridge and Helias as a way of showing the students that many of their school’s alumni go on to do well academically.
Darcy said students from those three high schools are invited each year to talk about what their transition was like.
“It gives the students an idea of what’s facing them,” Darcy said.
West Junior High guidance counselor Carole Riesenberg is one of the first contacts students in Catholic school have with a public school official. Each year, she or another counselor goes to Columbia Catholic to give an enrollment presentation.
She said the presentation consists of discussions about the courses available in ninth grade, as well as a question-and-answer session in which students can ask about the curriculum or anything else on their minds.
“We try to give them a feeling for what ninth grade is going be like,” Riesenberg said. “Then, during the school year, we check in with them.”
Riesenberg said she doesn’t think the transition from Catholic school to public school is particularly difficult in Columbia. She cited joint involvement of students from Catholic and public schools in sports and other extracurricular activities, as well as good academic preparation as reasons for easier transitions.
“The students we do get from Columbia Catholic are typically wonderful students,” she said. “Most of them seem very well-adjusted, very respectful and very well prepared academically, and when you have those things, you generally don’t have problems transitioning.”
The biggest difference Claire, 15, and Laura, 17, cited was the size of the schools and the diversity of the student body. Navigating hallways and getting from one class to another are problems that didn’t come up in Catholic school.
Claire and Laura also said their earlier interactions with public school students made the transition easier.
“Just because you’re in a Catholic school doesn’t mean you’re oblivious to the kids who go to public school,” Claire said. “You’re friends with them.”
Despite the relatively easy transition, Laura and Claire said they likely would have attended a Catholic high school if one were available in Columbia.
Ann Schaeperkoetter, who attended a Catholic high school, said the situation with Catholic education in Columbia is a challenge for parents who want to provide their children with a religious foundation. She said she and her husband struggled for a long time about where to send their children for kindergarten.
“It was really a hard decision for us,” she said. “It was really the religious education that was important to my husband and me. Public school would have been a good option also, but they can’t offer that religious instruction.”
The same decision surfaced again five years ago when their eldest child, now a sophomore in college, was in eighth grade. The decision determined where his two siblings would attend high school as well.
Ann Schaeperkoetter said she and her husband visited Helias and were pleased with what they saw. One problem, however, kept arising.
“The issue was that we really liked the Catholic school, but we kept asking ourselves if we really wanted a 40-minute commute,” Schaeperkoetter said.