The city of Columbia is now home to seven high schools, a large number for a town with a population near 113,000. But as the school list expands, are students benefiting from the diverse options? Or is it becoming a case of too much competition?
Kristie Wolf, principal of Father Tolton Catholic High School, clearly remembers her first conversation with Bishop John Gaydos. “The first thing Bishop Gaydos said to me was he was disappointed the largest city in his diocese did not have a Catholic high school, and we need to fix that,” Wolf says. Of course, this is no longer the case. Father Tolton opened its doors to freshmen and sophomores in 2011, and this fall the school welcomed its first senior class.
But Columbia Public Schools also set a milestone this fall. In opening Battle High School, it increased the total public secondary education options to four, including Hickman, Rock Bridge and Douglass. With Columbia Independent School and Christian Fellowship, Columbia now has seven high schools. It’s pretty impressive for a city with a little more than 113,000 people. But could there be a tipping point?
Too much competition?
Wolf says this question was a hot topic before Tolton opened. “I have heard there was initially some resistance to building another Catholic high school because within the Catholic community there was a perception that it would weaken Helias (Jefferson City) in some way,” she says. “But I don’t think we actually overlap, or if we do, maybe by five students or so. Helias draws mainly from Jefferson City.”
The new head of school for Columbia Independent, Adam Dubé, feels the number of secondary school options is actually advantageous. “There are so many great school options in Columbia,” says Dubé, who appreciates the quality education provided by the public school system but also feels alternative schools bring something new to the table.
“Ninety-five percent of Columbia kids are graduating from Hickman, Rock Bridge and Battle,” Dubé continues. “We look for ways that we can truly personalize the experience.”
For instance, this year CIS offers a new program for ninth-graders called Intraterm, which allows students to immerse themselves in a weeklong course study apart from their regular curriculum.
Scott Williams, principal of Christian Fellowship School since 1994 says: “We have a very good working relationship with CPS. Our students use the career center and other services.” But Williams also feels educational choices are essential, especially for families seeking a more spiritual aspect. “The most distinctive thing that sets us apart is that we have biblical integration in all our subject areas. We are looking to connect all that our children are learning to God’s truth, recognizing that all we are studying is truth created by God. At the same time, we offer our students a rigorous academic program to prepare them for college or whatever vocational direction they want to go when they leave here.”
Wolf believes many families are drawn to Tolton because of the school’s dedication to the Catholic faith. “We are traditional in our values, and we support our Catholic beliefs and values,” she says, adding that, in many ways, this is a welcomes change for those who attended Catholic school in 1970s and 1980s, when there was a movement to water down the faith.
“The idea was if the Catholic schools became a little less Catholic, they would appeal to more people,” Wolf says.
For Tolton parent Jennifer Baggett, a strong Catholic learning environment was the reason she and her husband enrolled their children in the Catholic High School. “For us, the most important thing was to continue our children’s Catholic education,” she says.
Lisa Kayser says her daughter was the driving force behind selecting Tolton. “I decided to go to Tolton because I wanted to grow in my faith, and I felt like I could get a better education,” says freshman Ellie Kayser. Now that she’s attending, she says she appreciates how Tolton feels like one big family. Tolton students are put into “houses” or community groups from day one to help them make a smoother transition.
Voice of the students
Student input is also important at Tolton. The school’s sports medicine course as well as the furniture in the library came from student brainstorming.
Dr. Kim Presko, principal at Battle High School, also recognizes the important of student involvement. “Being a new school, we don’t have traditions,” she says, though Battle does follow the same curriculum as Rock Bridge and Hickman. “So our kids, teachers and parents get to set the traditions we value here. Since we don’t have a history, we are creating it as we go.”
Prior to this fall, Presko met four times with students slated to attend Battle. “We asked them what kinds of things they were interested in, talked about clubs and activities and gave them a tour of the building,” she says.
Dubé believes the smaller size of the alternative schools is what draws many parents. “We can attend to individual strengths and weaknesses as well as individual interests,” he says. CIS school enrollment this year is 37.
Williams says the smaller class sizes allow Christian Fellowship students to do extracurricular activities such as travel together and participate in outreach programs. “Our juniors do a trip to New Orleans or Chicago every year, which is a combination of a history and a service trip,” he says. Currently, there are 83 high school students enrolled at CFS.
Public vs. private
Although there are many similarities among the seven high schools, there are also significant differences. Whereas, the public schools are free aside from school supplies and incidental fees, tuition is required at all of the private schools. However, many provide fee breaks, such as when two children from the same family attend Tolton, the family receives a $1,000 discount per child. All of the alternative high schools in Columbia also offer scholarships. According to Williams, at least 20 percent of the students attending Christian Fellowship receive tuition assistance. The private institutions also require either uniforms or enforce dress codes, which might include specifics such as no tennis shoes or sweatshirts or a requirement for the length of skirts.
At the moment, Tolton and Battle still have room for more students. Battle expects an additional 400 to join its ranks once it accepts seniors next fall. With an unfinished third floor, Tolton also has room to expand.
With Columbia growing, the possibility of additional high schools in the future is always a possibility. As long as there is community support, there will always be room for more options.