By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
LEE’S SUMMIT — At long last, construction.
Dr. Dan Peters said that negotiations to acquire the last right-of-way easements and secure building permits for the construction of St. Michael the Archangel High School should be completed in time for construction to begin as early as next month.
When that happens, building the $31.4 million state-of-the-art high school should be completed by June 2017, with the first students walking through the doors two months later for the following fall semester.
“If we start construction in February, there shouldn’t be a problem,” said Peters, superintendent of diocesan schools.
Peters is no rookie when it comes to high school construction. As superintendent of the Renwick School District near Wichita, Peters spearheaded and oversaw two major bond issues that built that district’s second high school as well as major renovations to every other school in the district.
But this will be his first crack at midwifing the birth of an “authentically Catholic” high school, and he is relishing the opportunity.
“We plan for it to be very authentically Catholic,” Peters said. “We expect to ‘up’ the level of spiritual development. Our teachers will not only be the best educators, but they will be role models of the Catholic faith. There will be a high level of spiritual development because we want to build a strong Christian school, and strong Catholics for the future.”
The very building itself, using the knowledge gained in both religious and educational architecture over the past 50 years since the diocese last built a new high school, will echo that theme of authentic Catholicism.
“The chapel will be at the center of the building. It will be the first thing you see when you enter the building,” Peters said.
Leading to chapel will be a special stairway that is already dubbed “The Learning Stairs.” Peters said it will be like an amphitheater for social, educational and religious prayer functions, seating up to 100 students at a time.
Peters is not the only school official excited that construction will begin very soon.
In interviews with The Catholic Key before the 2015-16 school year began, Deacon John Purk welcomed the daunting challenge of opening a new school, tailor-made for the three pillars of Catholic education outlined in the diocese’s strategic plan:
• Distinctly Catholic.
• Academically excellent.
• Financially stable.
“People are looking for what their heart desires. They are looking for the truth, and that truth is in the person of Jesus Christ,” Deacon Purk said.
“When you have a school offering them scientific and academic truths as the truth about God, you are offering them everything their heart desires,” he said.
St. Michael’s will be a college preparatory school offering AP (advance placement for college credit) courses, and the ‘Options’ program currently offered at Archbishop O’Hara High School.
Options, funded by the Foundation for Inclusive Religious Education (FIRE), offers students with developmental needs the full high school experience of their age group peers.
A welcoming atmosphere will be one of the key gifts from the O’Hara tradition that will inspire the new St. Michael, Peters said.
St. Michael was originally planned to be a merger of Archbishop O’Hara and St. Mary High School in Independence. But when circumstances delayed construction of the new school and forced the closing of St. Mary earlier than planned, the Archbishop O’Hara community welcomed students from St. Mary with wide open arms.
“There is a culture there that is really welcoming,” Peters said.
“We want to treat everybody as if they have gifts to give to the world, and we want to accentuate and develop those gifts,” he said.
Peters noted that this year’s sophomore class at O’Hara will be the first seniors and the first graduating class at St. Michael. Students who are now in the seventh grade who enroll as freshmen at St. Michael for the 2017-18 school year will be part of the special Class of 2021, the first that will have attended all four years at St. Michael.
The school will also be located in the bullseye of demographic growth in Eastern Jackson County, between Strother Road and Lee’s Summit Road near the Lee’s Summit Airport. It will serve the rapidly growing areas of Lee’s Summit, Blue Springs and eastern Independence.
That area is also known for top-notch public schools, a fact that doesn’t bother Peters in the least. In fact, he welcomes it.
“You’ll find that all over the country,” he said. “You’ll find that you’ll have very good public schools next to very good Catholic schools. That’s because you are in a community where parents are very interested in high quality education.”
Peters said the same factors exist at both St. Pius X High School in Kansas City, north, and at Bishop LeBlond High School in St. Joseph, two schools that thrive with very good public schools around them.
As a former public school administrator, he knows the value of quality public education to an entire community. But as a Catholic school administrator, Peters said he also knows that Catholic schools can offer what no public school can.
St. Michael will be “authentically Catholic.”
“We can teach what public schools can’t teach and that is the spiritual development of the whole child,” Peters said.
“Our parents are involved in that. They are concerned. They are all in,” he said.
St. Michael the Archangel High School will be financed with some $11 million raised by the Forward in Faith campaign for Catholic education, and some $20 million in low-interest bonds under a special Missouri program for private schools that will attract investors because the interest earned on the bonds will be tax-free, like bonds issued by local governments and public school districts.
“All the construction documents are ready to go, all the financing is in place,” Peters said.
Peters said when St. Michael opens in August 2017, he expects an enrollment of between 325 to 365 students.
“O’Hara is at 310 this year, and we hope to bring most of those over,” as well as attract new students to the new school.
The school will be built for a capacity of 450 students, but core areas will also be initially constructed for as many as 700 students.
“It will have the infrastructure for 700, but to do that, we would need to add another classroom wing,” Peters said.
Because of the design of the school, that addition could be done easily when the demand requires it, Peters said.
Deacon Purk said that as exciting as opening a new high school and building new, unique traditions, it will pale in comparison to what will happen inside St. Michael the Archangel High School for generations to come.
“What we are really building is the knowledge and faith formation in the minds, hearts and lives of our students,” he said.
“There is an opportunity here to implement a vision where students, faculty, staff and parents are called into a personal encounter with Jesus Christ,” Deacon Purk said.
“When our students graduate, they will be equipped to serve and transform the world,” he said. “We’re building something beautiful that is in service to Jesus Christ who is the way, the truth and the life.”