Bright future — and present — for Holy Cross Academy

Reporting for school in August 2012, Claire Hite, Ben Erken and John Benedick felt a bit of trepidation and nervousness — typical jitters on the first day of school, but with the added stress of entering as the new kids at an upper-grade school.

With one notable difference: They wouldn't be adjusting to life as new-kid-on-the-block freshmen at one of the area's Catholic high schools.

Instead, they were pioneers, among the first Catholic grade school students in the Archdiocese of St. Louis adjusting to life in a middle school.

As sixth-graders then, Hite, Erken and Benedick entered the brand-spanking new Holy Cross Academy, a consolidation of four schools that formerly housed kindergarten through eighth-grade. It was the first — and remains the only — similar school system in the archdiocese, a new way to approach Catholic education, but in a format that public schools have used for years.

Holy Cross started with three campuses for primary grades, kindergarten through fifth grade — St. Michael the Archangel in Shrewsbury, Our Lady of Providence in Crestwood and Seven Holy Founders in Affton (which has since closed but still is a Holy Cross Academy parish). Annunciation in Webster Groves anchored HCA with the middle-school campus, grades six through eight.

"I was kind of nervous about it," admitted Erken, who transferred from a Catholic K-8 and "didn't know anybody. I just didn't know what to think about (the school), if it was going to be a good or bad idea."

His conclusion: "It is a good idea," he said, emphatically.

Erken, Hite and Benedict started school Wednesday as eighth graders, and come May, they will be among the first graduates to solely attend HCA in sixth, seventh and eighth grades.

After only two school years, it probably is too early to declare Holy Cross Academy a success, but it's trending that way, thriving academically, socially and financially. And the middle-school students — really, what other voices count? — simply love the middle-school vibe.

Most obviously, they attend school without little kids underfoot as in a traditional K-8 format, but they have advantages way beyond that. According to Holy Cross president Amie Koenen, a survey of HCA's first graduates showed that they felt better-prepared for the transition to high school than K-8 peers. At Holy Cross, they do, well, high school things — with lockers, classroom switches and the like. It's an easier transition to a 200-student class in high school from a 60-student middle-school class, vs. a class of 12 to 20 in a K-8.

"My cousin went to a middle school and he told me it was like a second high school," said Benedick, who transferred from a Catholic K-8 in the city and, like Erken, knew no one at Holy Cross. "It's all kids around your age. It's so much more helpful going into high school that way."

Those social factors pale in comparison to the academic opportunities, with electives such as theory of flight, robotics and foreign language to name a few. For example, Benedick studies Spanish and Chinese.

"Our teachers have special talents, so we get to have electives that we would never have had if it was just K-8," said Hite, who attended Annunciation before the change.

A measure of Holy Cross's success is that families have moved into one of its four parishes expressly for their children to attend Holy Cross, according to Koenen. In addition, younger siblings of middle-school students now attend one of the primary schools. For instance, Ben Erken's younger siblings — Sami in fifth grade and Sofia in first — transferred this year to St. Michael from a Catholic K-8.

The future looks bright. Kindergarten numbers are healthy — 26 at OLP and 23 at St. Michael's — and 120 are enrolled in pre-school programs. Without Holy Cross, St. Michael, Providence and Annunciation likely would have closed, K-8 unsustainable. But as Holy Cross, they are thriving.

"This has worked because of the leadership of our pastors and parish councils, plus our parents were willing to take a risk," Koenen said. "The product we have now is so much better than we were able to offer." 

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