Sixth-grader Rachael Schepp has attended Christ the King in Mandan all her life, but, starting next year, she will go to school across the river at the Light of Christ Academy.
"I'm a little nervous," she said. "It's a new school. It's a little bit bigger."
Despite the jitters, she's also excited about moving to the Catholic school system in Bismarck, and she isn't the only one of her friends making the switch.
They will change schools because Christ the King plans to stop offering seventh- and eighth-grade instruction next school year at its St. Thomas Aquinas Academy. The school made that decision with the idea that students in those grades will, instead, enter Bismarck's Light of Christ Catholic school system.
The Rev. Nick Schneider, pastor of Christ the King, draws a parallel to Mary, Joseph and Jesus when he describes the blossoming relationship between the Catholic schools in the two cities.
Along the banks of the Missouri River, 19th-century settlers built the region's first two Catholic parishes. They called them "St. Mary's" in Bismarck and "St. Joseph" in Mandan.
"They are the beginning of the Holy Family, and Christ is at the center," Schneider said. "If you look into this, the Holy Spirit really is the one desiring this to be one family."
While the new relationship between the schools embodies that image, administrators say the partnership also makes sense for other reasons.
"I really see Catholic education as a K-12 project and beyond," Schneider said.
The bulk of students who complete eighth grade at Christ the King typically enroll at Mandan High School their freshman year, he said.
Only a few cross the river to continue a Catholic education within the Light of Christ system, said Carmen Cain, principal at the Light of Christ Academy for seventh- and eighth-graders and at St. Mary's Central High School.
Helen Baumgartner wanted to send her daughter, who attends Christ the King, to St. Mary's for that reason. Students at the Light of Christ high school have ample opportunity to pursue their faith, she said.
"They have a chance to go to chapel to pray every day," she said.
Christ the King's decision to end seventh and eighth grade expedited her family's plan. Baumgartner's daughter will enter seventh grade at the Academy next year, along with nearly all her classmates.
So far, six Christ the King students have registered at the Academy. Cain said she anticipates several more will follow suit, joining the 150 seventh- and eight-graders already attending the Bismarck school.
Thirteen students who will enter seventh and eighth grades next year could make the move, though Schneider said some families have opted to send their kids to Mandan Public Schools.
Many Christ the King families feel a close bond to their community, which caused some to grapple with what the change would mean for their identity as Mandan residents, he said.
Cain sensed that when she attended a dinner with the families earlier this school year to talk about the potential partnership.
"I could feel, as with any change, there was some sadness or some resistance," she said. "But I would say very quickly as I spoke about all of the opportunities we would be able to offer, you could sense that resistance and sadness going away."
Opportunities in Bismarck
Laurie Schepp, mom to sixth-grader Rachel, recalls the nerves and excitement when she recently drove her daughter and eighth-grade son Jacob to a "shadow day" at the Academy and St. Mary's.
"It was like dropping them off for the first day of kindergarten," said Laurie Schepp, who has grown accustomed to seeing her kids during the school day because she teaches second grade at Christ the King.
But she knows the switch will allow them to continue their education in a small school setting, which is important to her and her husband.
Rachel said she cannot wait for the exploratory classes at the Academy, which allow students time to explore a passion. For her, it's photography. Academy students can take courses in everything from fishing to creative writing to the American presidency.
"It helps those kids find friends with a common interest," Cain said.
Christ the King does not have the resources to offer exploratory classes or the same level of extracurricular activities, Schneider said.
"We have wonderful teachers, but we have a smaller staff," he said. "We weren't able to provide some of those things for our students."
Light of Christ will also provide a small bus to drive students between the schools next year.
"We are trying to offer something that would make the transition easier," Cain said.
That sealed the deal for Baumgartner, the mother of a Christ the King sixth-grader who was apprehensive when she first heard about the plan to end seventh and eighth grade at her daughter's school.
She and her husband are legally blind and cannot drive.
"We built a home right by Christ the King so we could get her to school," Baumgartner said. "I was so relieved when I was told Light of Christ would be providing transportation. It was like a ton of bricks had been taken off my shoulders."
Light of Christ does not offer any other transportation services for the students at its five schools.
Christ the King students, on the other hand, are used to riding the bus with Roosevelt Elementary School kids, who go to school next door.
The new bus won't transport kids to their homes — it will only make stops at the two schools. That will allow parents who have younger kids at Christ the King to drop off and pick up their children at the same place, Schneider said.
Ramifications for relationships
While the schools work to make the transition as smooth as possible for families, the change holds a tough consequence for Christ the King employees.
"The most challenging part of this is the change in relationships because we will lose some staff members, and those are staff members who have dedicated years and a lot of energy to this system," Schneider said. "We will be very sad to not have those people with us next year."
He declined to say how many employees the school will let go out of respect for those affected while they make future plans.
The change, however, will also prompt new relationships.
The connection between the schools has been limited in the past. Students attended each other's dances but had few other opportunities to interact. They never played on the same sports teams because Christ the King had a cooperative agreement with Mandan Public Schools.
After spending a recent school day meeting future classmates and teachers at the Academy, Baumgartner said her daughter came home "so excited she could hardly contain herself."
"It just seems like, if you don't go there, you're just going to be missing out on something," she said.