By Tom Tracy Catholic News Service
KEY WEST, Fla. (CNS) -- Due to growing enrollment, the Basilica of St. Mary Star of the Sea in Key West has announced a historic reopening of the parish's Catholic high school, set for the 2023-2024 school year.
"The key to the demand is that people like what we offer. They like the academic product and the ethos of the school compared to other options. It is a peaceful, safe environment that makes it conducive to learning," said Robert Wright, principal of the Key West school since 2013.
Renovation of the school's old auditorium will provide a 17,500 square foot academic facility. The current pre-K through grade 8 at the Basilica School of St. Mary Star of the Sea is making plans to expand to grades 9 and 10 in August 2023.
Laying the groundwork for that expansion, the school will increase its elementary school enrollment in the upper grades beginning next fall.
"I came in 2013 with 170-student enrollment and we have over 350 students today with over 100 on a waiting list. The demand is there," Wright said. "People are just so excited."
When Father John Baker, the basilica's rector, made the announcement during Masses at the beginning of March, "people were in tears that they would be able to avail themselves of our faith traditions," Wright added.
In 1986, the old Mary Immaculate High School closed due to declining enrollment and financial insolvency, according to a written history of the parish. Although the warning signs had been there for five years, the closure was still a shock to the community. After the last graduating class in June 1986, St. Mary's School moved into the old high school facilities and was renamed Mary Immaculate Star of the Sea School.
In 2012, Pope Benedict XVI declared St. Mary Star of the Sea a minor basilica and the school's name changed to the Basilica School of St. Mary Star of the Sea.
Wright said that an expansion of student choice legislation in Florida, along with limited private school options in the lower Florida Keys, has created strong demand for Catholic education in Key West. There are also options for special needs children at the school.
The new high school will offer students dual enrollment and advanced placement courses, the latest technology, extracurricular activities, clubs, and sports programs, according to Wright. With an expected enrollment of approximately 180 students by year three, the vision is to keep classes relatively small.
"Florida, right now, is so supportive an environment for school choice. We have a good product, great teachers and a governor and a legislature who are finding ways for more and more students to find a way to afford private education," Wright said.
He noted that the per student cost for the Catholic school is roughly $10K a student, and that Monroe County public schools' (where Key West is located) costs are more than double that.
Currently about 64% of the Catholic school students in Key West already benefit from a variety of income and needs-based voucher programs.
Wright said the school will not accept registrations at least until construction has begun, and that a lot of work on the project remains, including fundraising, designs and construction permits and planning.
The new high school construction will take place in what was the old auditorium, which was dealt a blow in 2017 when Hurricane Irma tore off the roof and one adjacent wall.
The Archdiocese of Miami, like many dioceses around the country, has seen an uptick in enrollment over the past year or two, possibly driven by factors related to local response to the coronavirus pandemic and government expansion of the Step Up school vouchers.
"Specifically, our archdiocesan enrollment is up 5% this year, and the vast majority of our schools have seen an enrollment increase," said Jim Rigg, archdiocesan secretary of education and superintendent of Catholic schools. "The overall quality of our Catholic schools is always a draw."
A Cristo Rey high school is expected to open in fall 2022 in the North Miami area. The Catholic high school offers a faith-based college preparatory program and corporate work study experience for students from families with limited economic means. This will be the second of its kind in Florida, joining a similar high school in Tampa as one of nearly 40 Cristo Rey schools nationwide.