By Terry Cregar
GREENVILLE — A decision could be made as early as November on whether a private Catholic middle school will open in the Upstate.
The Board of Directors for St. Joseph’s High School, a private Catholic school in Greenville, is expected to vote at its November meeting whether to move forward with plans to open a private middle school on the high school campus beginning with the 2003-04 school year.
Keith Kiser, the high school’s headmaster, said a committee exploring the possibility of starting a private Catholic middle school has developed a market survey that will be mailed to more than 9,000 Catholic and non-Catholic families in the Upstate.
Kiser said the survey, along with an open house planned for Oct. 7 at St. Joseph’s, would help the committee gauge current public interest in starting a private Catholic middle school in the area. Middle school instruction is currently offered at Our Lady of the Rosary and St. Mary’s parishes.
The middle school has been on the minds of St. Joseph’s officials since the high school moved to its current campus site off Interstate 85 five years ago.
“When this building was opened back in 1997, the board at that time sent out a market survey to a number of families about a middle school, with the intention of having a middle school as part of the high school,” Kiser said.
Kiser said those survey numbers showed a “definite desire” from the community for the private Catholic middle school.
“But, it also was clear that St. Joseph’s had some issues to address before it could move forward, the main issue being to fully establish the high school.”
At the time, the high school was only four years old.
Kiser said it would have been premature to attempt to start a middle school when the high school was still in its infancy.
“Also, there was some concern expressed at that time that we weren’t recognized and approved by the diocese,” Kiser said.
Both of those issues have since been addressed, he said. The high school is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year; it’s fully accredited by the South Carolina Independent School Association, and two years ago Bishop Robert J. Baker signed a document approving the school as a private, independent Catholic school recognized by the diocese.
“We are a vital part of the Catholic community in Greenville,” Kiser said.
If there ever was any doubt about starting a middle school at St. Joseph’s, that hesitation vanished earlier this year when American Fibers and Yarns, which had been leasing a building from the school, decided to consolidate operations and left for North Carolina.
“We put the building on the market for awhile, but there was no interest,” Kiser said. “That got some of us to thinking that maybe that’s God’s design — that the building would be vacated and transformed into a middle school.”
Michael Pennell, St. Joseph’s assistant headmaster and chairman of the middle school committee, said the group still must work out decisions on how the new school would be structured, its curriculum, tuition and admissions requirements, issues the newest survey should help answer.
One question on the survey asks whether parents would support single-gender classroom instruction at the new middle school.
“There’s a long-established tradition within the Catholic Church of single-sex schools,” Kiser said, and recent studies and public discussions have led to a renewed interest in the subject.
“The idea wouldn’t be to keep the boys and girls apart from each other, but to create the ideal learning environment,” he said.
The middle school committee will make a recommendation on single-sex middle schools to the St. Joseph’s board, which will make the final decision.
Kiser said any decision to go to single-gender classrooms at the middle school wouldn’t affect the high school, which would remain co-ed.
Some renovations would have to be made at the vacant two-story, 18,000-square-foot office building. School officials estimate that the facility would accommodate around 250 students.
There are 260 students currently enrolled at the high school.
Pennell, who has nine years of experience in middle and high school education, said teachers at St. Joseph’s are excited about bringing a middle school to the campus.
“We have a lot of faculty already on board who have experience in middle school education,” Pennell said. “It’s exciting for the high school teachers to be part of a project where, one day, they will have these students in their classroom and have a say in the kind of preparation those students receive for high school.”
Kiser said he has received a positive response from St. Mary’s and Our Lady of the Rosary regarding the middle school effort at St. Joseph’s.
“It’s not our desire to take students from the other schools,” he said.
Father Jay Scott Newman, pastor at St. Mary, said his parish doesn’t have the space to expand its kindergarten through eighth grade program, which is already at “110 percent enrollment.”
“We can’t expand,” Father Newman said. “We’re delighted to see another middle school in the area.”
Kiser said St. Joseph’s middle school would serve a different market than that currently being served by Our Lady of the Rosary School. He said the high school now has a number of children who come from middle schools in the rapidly growing suburbs of Mauldin and Simpsonville, south of Greenville.
Our Lady of the Rosary School Principal Mary Lougue said her school “has a historical presence and a record for providing academic excellence for students from all walks of life. We strongly feel that with our supportive parent population, we will continue to do so for many years to come”
Parents who haven’t received a survey from St. Joseph’s and would like to respond can contact Betsy Wilburn at (864) 234-9009 ext. 320.