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School planning

School staff work with an architect. In front is Tracy Friesen, assistant principal of St. Mary's Central High School, back left, Gerald Vetter, president of Light of Christ Catholic Schools, Reed Ruggles, principal of St. Mary's High School and Peter Lacey, architect.

PROVIDED

It's been five years since the five parishes of Bismarck came together and established the Light of Christ Catholic Schools system.

In that time, the school system has seen marked growth alongside the two public school districts in the area.

One way to measure the student growth is by a new, multi-million dollar Catholic high school, which is expected to open in fall 2019.

Tim McCaffrey, director of mission advancement for Light of Christ Schools, said, as of March, collections have amounted to more than half what is needed to build the new school.

With just under $25 million of the needed $46.5 million, McCaffrey said the school system is on track to break ground on the project in August.

“The support from the community has been extremely strong," McCaffrey said in a recent interview in his office at St. Mary's Central High School.

Last year, a local developer donated 48 acres of land in northern Bismarck for the new school, which sits untouched with a sign that reads, "Future Home of the St. Mary's Central High School Saints." McCaffrey said Light of Christ has already selected a construction company to begin building it, with hopes of construction being completed by April 2019.

School officials said the new building is long overdue. The current high school has been around for about 65 years and students and staff have outgrown its space.

Last school year, the entire Catholic school system saw a 7 percent jump in student enrollment, and growth is expected to continue, said Gerald Vetter, president of Light of Christ Schools.

To accommodate more students, Light of Christ has six portable classrooms — four at St. Mary's Central High School and two at St. Mary’s Grade School. Next school year, partially in response to the sixth-graders moving into the seventh- and eighth-grade Academy, they will add six to eight more portable classrooms within the system, according to Vetter.

“It’s pretty significant,” Vetter said.

Much of the student growth is occurring at the elementary schools, which are filling up with students.

In addition, $6 million raised though the campaign for the new high school will go toward improvements and additions at the elementary schools, including an add-on at St. Mary's Grade School planned to be constructed next year.

New high school, new curriculum

The new St. Mary's high school will be much more than a building, according to school officials. It will also bring some educational changes.

“This is not just about a building, but really has a lot to do with us taking advantage of this opportunity to make our curriculum dynamic and one that will reach the kids in a different way," McCaffrey said.

Light of Christ is establishing more business partnerships, including with Choice Financial Bank in Bismarck, to work on new curriculum at the high school. Choice Financial donated $10 million to open a financial literacy center to help students learn money management and business skills.

Another goal is to get more students involved with the Career Academy near the Bismarck State College campus. McCaffrey said this will help students who might not fit in the "box" of attending a four-year college after high school and opens options to two-year programs, including technical and mechanical education.

“We’re going to put that out more to our student body so it becomes more about the student getting what they need rather than us trying to fit them into a box," McCaffrey said.

The school system also will expand its STEAM education — science, technology, art and math — at the new high school, as part of the fundraising campaign. McCaffrey said Light of Christ hasn't had the resources to expand STEM curriculum to the high schools. Currently, it's offered at the elementary through middle school level.

Recently, a St. Mary's high school teacher also visited the Orange County School for Arts, a public charter school, to try to incorporate what they're doing at the school out there, which offers art conservatories, into the fine arts program here, McCaffrey said.

Vetter, president of the Catholic schools system, said he expects the new St. Mary's Central High School and changes to curriculum will attract more students from the Bismarck-Mandan area.

(Reach Blair Emerson at 701-250-8251 or Blair.Emerson@bismarcktribune.com)

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