By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter
KANSAS CITY — Two diocesan high schools with a combined history of 200 years service to the community are preparing to become one. St. Mary’s High School in Independence and Archbishop O’Hara High School are merging administrations as a first step in a three year plan toward joining together as a new high school in a new location.
In 1884, the Sisters of Mercy from Carrollton established a boarding school for girls and a day school for the children of St. Mary parish in Independence. In 1965, it was announced that the school, which had become coeducational in 1946, would become a diocesan high school, known as St. Mary’s High School. The parish grade school separated from the high school in 1975, and its students eventually were absorbed into other schools. In 1984, a bequest changed the name of the high school to St. Mary/Bundschu Memorial High School. Beginning in 1989, the high school was fully accredited by North Central Association, now a division of AdvancEd, the world’s largest academic accrediting agency.
In 1964, a new high school was built in southeast Kansas City, originally intended to serve Our Lady of Lourdes, St. Bernadette, St. Sabina, St. Catherine of Siena, Coronation, Christ the King, Our Lady of the Presentation, St. Thomas More and St. Matthew and St. John Francis Regis parishes. Named in honor of Archbishop Edwin V. O’Hara, the first bishop of the new diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, it opened in 1965. The high school at first was co-instructional but not coeducational, meaning that the boys and girls would be taught in separate classrooms. Archbishop O’Hara High School was accredited by the State of Missouri in 1969. It became coeducational in the late 1970s, and accredited by North Central Association (AdvancEd), at the same time.
In 2010, a study by the firm of O’Meara, Ferguson, Whelan and Conway reemphasized the long-recognized need of a new Catholic high school that would serve eastern Jackson, western Lafayette and northern Cass counties by recommending a site with access to the I-470, M-291 and U.S. 350 highway corridors.
In January 2012, it was announced that the diocese had, in a combination purchase and donation, acquired an 80-acre tract of land on the border between Kansas City and Lee’s Summit, on which it plans to build a $30 million high school. If all goes according to plan, the new school will open in 2015, at which time, St. Mary’s and Archbishop O’Hara high schools will become one.
Dr. Dan Peters, diocesan Superintendent of Schools, said that opening a new high school by combining St. Mary’s and Archbishop O’Hara into one school on the new site would be a sustainable way to make Catholic education available to a broader area than the two schools draw from currently.
“We are still working on refining the financial model for the new school,” Peters said.
A planned diocesan capital campaign will contribute $15 million toward construction of the new high school. The remaining $15 million would be borrowed against future revenues from the school, Peters explained.
In addition, the assets, liabilities and debts of each school will follow them to the new school. For example, land purchased in 2001 for a new St. Mary’s High School remains an asset of St. Mary’s. Eventually it will be sold and the proceeds will benefit the new school. The current school buildings will either be repurposed or sold, Peters said.
“We plan to open the doors in the fall of 2015, with an enrollment of between 400 and 600 students,” he said.
Over the course of the next three years, Peters hopes to see the faculties, school boards and students of both St. Mary’s and O’Hara merge into one. The beginning of that long-range plan entails John O’Connor, principal of O’Hara, becoming principal of both schools, effective with the upcoming school year.
“The idea of combining the two schools has been around for more than a year,” Peters said, “but when it actually comes down to closing schools, it’s never pleasant, especially when one has a 150 year history and the other more than 50 years. But we have to do this in order to sustain what we have — Catholic education.”
Peters and O’Connor agreed that “The people we’ve worked with and met with — the parents, faculties and school boards — are beginning to generate excitement, creativity and anticipation for a new school. Of course, when we first meet with a group, the reaction is often a mixed bag: some embrace the notion, others feel sadness.”
A letter was sent out to parents, faculty, board members and alumni some weeks ago, announcing the intended consolidation of the two high schools, beginning with a unified administration under O’Connor. The response was so great it was decided to have a town hall meeting to listen to people and introduce O’Connor. Peters said that the March 8 meeting at St. Mary’s was a meeting that needed to occur.
“Parents, board members and alums, even current students needed to ask and get answers to their questions,” he said. “There was a lot of fresh emotion; not all those at the meeting were ready for logical explanations. But for us to work through the changes and move ahead, the community needed to be heard.”
Working to keep traditions of both schools intact and part of the future, an experienced team of leaders from both schools worked with Peters to come up with the first year of the three year plan. The team included faculty and administrative members from both schools: Brenda Peak, Glenn Young, Sara Kenney, Jane Schaffer and O’Connor.
A letter to students, parents and staff of both St. Mary’s and Archbishop O’Hara shows that O’Connor will alternate days between the two schools in two-week cycles, one week spending three days at one school and two days at the other. The next week he will reverse that schedule. Sara Kenney will serve as assistant principal and athletic director at St. Mary’s High School and as administrator in charge when O’Connor is not at St. Mary’s. Jane Schaffer, Larry Habel and Ann Wright will continue to serve as assistant principals at Archbishop O’Hara High School. School administrators will continue to moderate school activities, as they have in the past.
If successful, the unification of St. Mary’s and Archbishop O’Hara high schools into one entity, one new Catholic high school, will continue the traditions of both schools, Peters added, while building a physical plant that will be better suited to 21st century education in an area that has the greatest potential for enrollment.
And, the superintendent added, there will be a competition to select a new name for the new high school, which will be held in the near future.