Faith, life and learning: Catholics in Arkansas get a new high school

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Northwest Arkansas has its first independent Catholic school with the Aug. 16 opening of Ozark Catholic Academy.
“Our goal has not been to just open the doors, but to open them well,” John Rocha, the academy’s head of school, told the Arkansas Catholic newspaper.

Ozark Catholic Academy has enrolled 24 students for ninth and tenth grade in its first academic year, with its first senior class set to graduate in 2021.

It is temporarily based at St. Joseph Church in Tontitown, Ark., about 200 miles northwest of Little Rock. It is drawing students from the area, including some as far as Subiaco, a small town about a two-hour drive away.

One student, Matthew Moix, said his three older brothers attended Catholic grade school and junior high.

“But, nobody in my family has been through Catholic high school so I was the first one, and obviously, my parents were very excited,” Moix told the Fort Smith CBS television affiliate KFSM.

He said Ozark Catholic Academy “integrates the Catholic faith into everything.”

Beth McClinton of Fayetteville said her son would leave another private school to attend the school.

“We had hoped and prayed for a Catholic high school in northwest Arkansas since we experienced the fruits of having our children attend Catholic school in their primary years,” she said. “It has been 80 years since a new Catholic high school has opened its doors in Arkansas and northwest Arkansas has the highest number of registered Catholics in the state.”

Four of the state’s five largest Catholic parishes are in northwest Arkansas.

Ozark Catholic Academy has a college preparatory program with an emphasis on service and Catholic identity.

Its vision “aims to implement the Catholic Church’s mission of sanctification and evangelization through the Catholic intellectual tradition,” according to its website. Its mission is to engage students in “a rigorous, integrated education that enables them to behold the fullness of reality through both faith and reason and to live the virtues that make one fully human and truly free.”

The school's coat of arms includes, in Latin, four words: freedom, docility or openness, truth, and sanctification.

Rocha, the head of school, was a founding staff member of the independent Catholic liberal arts boys’ school Western Academy in Houston, Texas. He served the school as development director and as a member of its administrative council.

The school will run a student leadership trip to Auxier, Ky. Students there will work with Hand in Hand ministries, an immersion experience intended to teach them about real world needs and how to serve with compassion.

“This will provide a Catholic world view for those students in understanding social justice issues and the drug epidemic that plagues this part of the country,” said Rocha. “For teenagers it is easier to help others, but we will challenge them to come back and truly love those around them in small actions, as well.”

He also noted Ozark Catholic Academy’s advisory program, which is one-on-one mentoring between a faculty member and a student.

“Building this relationship will help build stronger relationships among staff and students,” he said. “We believe strong relationships both with faculty and other students will help build a strong culture for the school. We also want students to continue to build relationships at home.”

Rocha said the push to launch the school began four-and-a-half years ago through the work of two sisters, Ashley Menendez and Adriana Stacy. Community supporters worked about 20,000 volunteer hours to launch the school.

Norma Ascenscio of Rogers, Ark., the mother of a new student, told the Arkansas Catholic her daughter went to a Catholic elementary school, adding, “I want her to be sure of her faith.”

“In today’s world, so many things occupy first place in their lives, but I want my daughter to be a person who loves God and is loved by God,” Ascenscio said.

Mark Breden of Fayetteville, a retired Procter and Gamble employee who is acting president of the school’s board of governors, said the new school should help companies recruiting families to move to the area. He said the school would emphasize building wisdom and character through Catholic education.

While the school is not operated by a parish, religious order or diocese, its religious curriculum must be approved by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and it must follow the directives of the local bishop, Anthony Taylor of Little Rock.

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