Centre County Catholic schools thriving

The first graduates of Saint Joseph’s Catholic Academy stand and celebrate during the commencement ceremony in May at the State Theatre. There were 13 graduates in the Class of 2014, and there are 32 students in this year’s senior class.
The first graduates of Saint Joseph’s Catholic Academy stand and celebrate during the commencement ceremony in May at the State Theatre. There were 13 graduates in the Class of 2014, and there are 32 students in this year’s senior class. CDT photo

When Bryce Herman graduated from Young Scholars of Central Pennsylvania Charter School last year, a choice had to be made between public and private school for his high school years.

And his father, Greg Herman, said he decided to enroll his 15-year-old son at St. Joseph’s Catholic Academy in Boalsburg instead of Bellefonte Area High School, the district where they live.

“Bryce is very bright,” Herman said. “He had a 4.0 (grade-point average) and was the valedictorian, and we wanted to find a place where he could continue his education at a high level. ... When we visited the school, we had a really good feeling about that, and found this was a place where everyone could learn and is enthusiastic about learning.”

Bryce was one of several students who made the transition this school year from a public or charter school to SJCA. And five students from outside the Catholic school system transferred to Our Lady of Victory Catholic School, 800 Westerly Parkway.

It’s a trend that local Catholic schools have seen in the past five years as enrollment has increased 39 percent at St. John the Evangelist Catholic School in Bellefonte; and 15 percent at Our Lady of Victory, according to Jodie Dello Stritto, vice president of consulting services at Affinity Connection, which represents the schools.

Catholic schools expect the rise in enrollment to be a long-term trend, and one administrator said she might have to cap school enrollment in the near future.

To keep up with the increase — and need for Catholic secondary education in the community — St. Joseph’s Catholic Academy opened its high school and college preparatory school in 2011 at 901 Boalsburg Pike, Boalsburg.

“A group of community leaders decided there was a need for a Catholic high school in the area,” Principal Chris Chirieleison said. “With two Catholic primary schools in the area with no other Catholic school option after the students aged out, it begged the question, ‘Why not?’ ”

So began the long process of working with the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown and surveying the area to determine where a Catholic high school should be, he said.

The school started with 38 students in its first year. In its second year it had about 65 students, and 102 students were enrolled last year. This year, there are 119 students, with an expected 2015 graduating class of 32 — up from just 13 in its first graduating class.

“Some families look for an alternative school with a faith-based or college-prep option,” Chirieleison said. “We’re in year four, and I think it’s providing greater awareness of education options in the community, and people are becoming confident with the program.”

Our Lady of Victory Principal Samantha Weakland said about 50 percent of graduating students continued their education at SJCA.

They also saw about the same percentage of students enrolled in OLV’s middle school from St. John the Evangelist School, which serves preschool to fifth grade. OLV serves preschool through eighth grade and has about 325 students — up from 291 in the 2012-13 school year, Weakland said.

“We get a good number of students from Bellefonte (St. John the Evangelist Catholic School) and sometimes as far as Tyrone ( St. Matthew Catholic Elementary School), and with the addition of St. Joe’s, it makes for a smooth transition for students getting into the next part of their education,” Weakland said. “This year, we had five students transfer in from non-Catholic schools and, so far, have six registered next year coming from public schools.”

When Sara Woskob’s daughter Hannah, 6, wasn’t fitting in at Gray’s Woods Elementary School, Woskob decided to find an alternative to public education for her daughter.

“Not to say State College is a bad school district by any means, but we struggled there, so we looked at Christian, Catholic and charter schools,” Woskob said. “We wanted to send her somewhere with a smaller atmosphere because she’s a shy child and was having some issues, and felt bullying wasn’t being handled aggressively enough.”

They toured OLV and found it was a place that was “family oriented and close-knit with a different set of morals and standards,” Woskob said.

And although Episcopalian by faith, Woskob felt it was their best option. Hannah started at OLV in November.

“We’re really happy with the switch because she loves it,” Woskob said. “She’s connecting and it’s really important she doesn’t have a negative outlook on school at such a young age, because she has so far yet to go. … Everything she’s learning is going beyond academics by learning faith and good morals.”

Woskob has two other children, ages 3 and 7 months, who will likely also go to Catholic schools.

“I do like the smaller environment, and I also really think it’s a great educational experience,” Woskob said.

But as classes grow at OLV, Weakland said, the school will eventually cap each grade at 42 to 44 students, or 378 total students. There are currently 42 seventh-graders, and 44 students in eighth grade, which Weakland said are record numbers.

“Our seventh- and eighth-grade classes are thriving,” she said. “We’re seeing more students from Our Lady of Victory and St. John the Evangelist opt to continue through to middle school. The availability of St. Joseph’s Catholic Academy has played a big role in this trend.”