KEY WEST | Due to growing enrollment, the Basilica of St. Mary Star of the Sea has announced a historic re-opening 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. “The reason we have that (environment) is that the school is rooted in the Gospel.”
Renovation of The Basilica School’s old auditorium will provide a 17,500 square foot academic facility. The school is working with William Horn Architecture and will launch a capital campaign, “From Start to Finish,” in the coming weeks, according to Wright.
The current PreK-3 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. June 1986 saw the last graduating class. St. Mary’s School then moved into the old high school facilities and was renamed Mary Immaculate Star of the Sea School, according to parish records.
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. It is located at 700 Truman Avenue, Key West.
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.
Continuing the tradition of the current, fully accredited, STREAM-certified PreK3–8 school, the new high school will offer students dual enrollment and advanced placement courses, the latest technology, and the most popular 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.
Scholarship programs, available through Step Up for Students, will keep costs affordable for all families.
“As valued in Catholic tradition, our new Basilica High School will continue to provide academic excellence to our community’s adolescents, while encouraging intellectual curiosity and the pursuit of truth, goodness and beauty,” Wright said. “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 noted that the per student cost for the Catholic school is roughly $10K a student, whereas Monroe County public schools’ costs are more than double that.
Some 64% of the Catholic school students in Key West already benefit from a variety of income and needs-based voucher programs. And there is a possibility that pending legislation will allow that to expand to include children of local families serving in the U.S. military in Monroe County.
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. Somewhat ironically, 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.
Wright said the addition of a high school offers families a more complete faith formation for their children by offering Catholic education for four more years following elementary school. “We do such a good job planting seeds in the kids, nurturing those seeds, and right at this most critical juncture in their lives keeping their faith nourished through to fruition during high school.”
The Archdiocese of Miami, like many dioceses around the country, has seen an uptick in enrollment over the last 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.”
Another Catholic high school, called Cristo Rey, is expected to open in fall 2022 in the North Miami area. The private Catholic high school offers a faith-based college preparatory program and corporate work study experience for students from families with limited economic means. A co-educational school, Cristo Rey 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.
Rigg pointed to several other examples of positive Catholic school enrollment in the Miami archdiocese:
Archbishop Coleman F. Carroll High School in Miami reports freshman class enrollment has more than doubled from the previous year and total enrollment is at its highest in recent memory.
St. Lawrence School in North Miami Beach reports enrollment is up 19%, with 40 new students this year.
All Saints School in Sunrise reports enrollment is up 16% with 49 new students this year. Our Lady of the Holy Rosary School in Miami reports enrollment is up 25%, or 88 additional students.
Persons interested in supporting the new high school in Key West should contact Wright at firstname.lastname@example.org.