Appeal helps St. Pius High School to thrive

Lisa Johnston | lisajohnston@archstl.org
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There are no bells rung signaling the start of school, between classes or at any other point in the school day at St. Pius X High School in Festus.

Students move along as they need, causing no ruckus, intimidating no one -- in a relaxed manner.

It may not be the Hollywood version of school or even typical, but it is "The St. Pius Way."

That phrase was coined by former St. Pius X High School secretary Carol Schmidt in a speech at a school graduation.

The phrase stuck, yet is hard to define without experiencing it. "The St. Pius Way" has a number of characteristics, such as being authentically Catholic, having no fear of uniqueness, encouraging each other and, perhaps most frequently cited, ensuring that no one eats alone at lunch.

The Annual Catholic Appeal, April 20 to May 5, will allocate $1.3 million to the 10 archdiocesan high schools, including St. Pius, if the ACA meets its goal of $12.5 million.

Caring

Interviewed outside their religion class, seniors Kathryn Chamberlain and Jennifer Ellmen said the teachers care about each student, including their life outside of school, and students care about each other. Corey Schmidt said the students feel they have a connection with each other. Adam Drury cited the character and integrity that is stressed at the school.

A caring environment at St. Pius ties together students, parents and the community. The focus is on each student being successful in their own way, explained Karen DeCosty, president of the school and a member of its class of 1993.

Father Edward Nemeth, vice president for faith formation, cited the individual attention students receive.

DeCosty noted that the best way to illustrate the school atmosphere is to come and visit. Father Nemeth agreed: "We want families to come down and experience for themselves why St. Pius is different."

Enrollment up

Several years ago the school was in an enrollment decline. A group of parents were passionate about stopping that decline. The committee was aggressive in reaching out to elementary schools in the region. The group also decided that word of mouth is the best marketing tool.

Enrollment has increased by about 100 students in that time frame to 352, the highest in eight years. The number of students from parish schools of religion and non-Catholic students has risen, and the percentage of students from Catholic elementary schools in the Festus Deanery has increased, from 39 percent to 62 percent.

Marketing let families know that an alternative school is available with a sound faith aspect and college preparatory aspect.

Catholic identity

"In the past few years we've put a focus on Catholic identity, to not just to be nominally Catholic but to be authentically Catholic," Father Nemeth said.

The approach means a renewal of the liturgy, more teaching and instruction in the faith and increasing the devotional life of the school. "Getting teens more active in the faith, which isn't easy," Father Nemeth said, "has had an effect."

The school's concert choir does rich pieces of sacred music. Mass is celebrated every morning, and the school has a "breakfast club" on Fridays that involves attending Mass; the school day and classes begin with prayer; and eucharistic adoration is offered throughout the year.

Community

Students raise money for a cause about once a month, one of which is the Annual Catholic Appeal. This year, the organizations that receive the funds are invited to give a presentation to help build a stronger connection.

Unlimited Play is a nonprofit organization that helps to plan, design and build fully accessible playgrounds that allow all children -- regardless of their abilities -- to play together. The organization is helping with Kade's Playground, a universally accessible playground to be built in Herculaneum and named after the deceased child of a St. Pius alum, Josh Bauman. Seniors at St. Pius visited one of the Unlimited Play playgrounds and presented a check for the Herculaneum playground.

"It's very important that schools embrace and promote their Catholic identity and not just hang crosses and say 'We're Catholic'" followed by projects" such as the playground, Father Nemeth said.

St. Pius introduces students to a college counselor and a college search process even before they begin their high school careers. Students take tours to five colleges in their first three years of high school.

Funds from the Annual Catholic Appeal go into the school's budget, allowing tuition to be lower than the actual cost of education. "It enables us to avoid reaching out to families and asking them to pay more to pay the bills. It means everything to us. It's so important to keep tuition as low as we can without compromising anything," DeCosty said.

Tuition increases have been under 2 percent each of the last four years.

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