First Catholic high school in Northwest Arkansas opens in Tontitown

by Jeff Della Rosa (JDellaRosa@nwabj.com) 1,601 views 

John Rocha, head of school for Ozark Catholic Academy, spoke at the opening celebration Thursday (Aug. 16) of the Catholic high school in Tontitown.

Nearly 30 years in the making, Ozark Catholic Academy in Tontitown has opened as the first Catholic high school in Northwest Arkansas.

On Thursday (Aug. 16), faculty, staff, students and supporters celebrated the opening on the first day of classes with a ribbon cutting and school tours before lunchtime.

Mark Breden, president of Ozark Catholic Academy Governing Board, said work to establish the school has been a nearly five-year endeavor and an almost 30-year dream. He estimated that volunteers have given 20,000 hours in support of establishing the school.

“Northwest Arkansas used to be the No. 1 metropolitan area in the United States without a Catholic high school,” Breden said. “Effective today, we are no longer on that list.”

School officials explained the location of the school as the birthplace of Catholicism in Northwest Arkansas. The school has a five-year lease to operate at the Father Pietro Bandini Parish Education Center of St. Joseph Catholic Church, a parish of the Diocese of Little Rock. St. Joseph Catholic Church was established in the late 1800s.

John Rocha, head of school, said he hopes Tontitown will be the permanent home for the school. It  is centrally located in Northwest Arkansas, and with the opening of the first phase of the U.S. Highway 412 bypass, it allows for better access for students from the Rogers area. The majority of its students have come from Rogers and Fayetteville schools. The school opened with 24 students — 16 freshmen and eight sophomores — and 11 faculty and staff. That includes full- and part-time staff and a volunteer.

“That’s enough for this year,” Rocha said. “We’re looking for a music teacher.”

The school’s mascot is the Griffins, and its sports teams have been practicing. It will have golf, cross country, basketball and track.

Cody Vaught, director of admissions, co-athletic director and head coach of all the sports teams, said he started working with students in May after he was hired in April. He previously was the boys basketball coach at West Fork. He said 18 or 19 students are participating in sports, and Vaught has two volunteers to help with golf and track.

The school has applied to become accredited through the Arkansas Activities Association (AAA), which would allow the school to play against other accredited schools. He said it takes six months to become accredited, meaning the school could start playing against other accredited schools early next year. Currently, the school will play other teams that aren’t accredited in the state, such as Thaden School, Providence Academy and Oklahoma and Missouri schools.

The Griffins’ first cross country meet is Sept. 6 in Seneca, Mo. The school will host a meet Sept. 15 and run in the 30th annual Chile Pepper Cross Country Festival on Sept. 22 in Fayetteville. The school plans to participate in six to eight cross country meets and four to six golf tournaments this fall. Basketball will be in winter, and track will be in spring.

When asked what it’s like to open the school, Rocha said “it feels awesome.” Before he was hired as head of school of Ozark Catholic Academy in August 2016, Rocha had helped to open an independent Catholic liberal arts school in Houston. Rocha, who was director of development for Western Academy, said the school was established in about two years. Rocha followed a similar timeline to establish the school here.

In 2006, when Msgr. David LeSieur became pastor of St. Vincent De Paul Catholic Church in Rogers, a feasibility study on establishing a Catholic high school in Northwest Arkansas had been completed and meetings had taken place at area Catholic churches. But the effort to build the school didn’t come about. However, more recent efforts led to the school being established after raising money to hire Rocha two years ago.

LeSieur described his support for the school and that he attended Catholic schools for 20 years, including at Catholic High School for Boys in Little Rock and seminary. He said the area has other Christian high schools, but this will be the first to provide a Catholic education. As a small school, it will offer a better student to teacher ratio, and plans include daily Mass for the students, LeSieur said, adding he would help the school to do so.

“We have finally achieved a dream to provide Catholic education for young people in this area,” LeSieur said.

The first class is expected to graduate from the school in spring 2021, Rocha said.

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