Gwyn Schaefer of Herrin is a high school freshman, and, like many other area high school students, she has to get up early so she can make sure she doesn’t miss her ride to school. Unlike many other students, however, her ride to school is 75 minutes long.
Schaefer is one of six Southern Illinois high school students riding together to attend classes at Notre Dame High School in Cape Girardeau. The long days require sacrifice, but it is one that her mother, Valerie Oestry, says is filled with blessings.
“It’s worth it in so many ways,” Oestry says. “I think the school, the atmosphere, the academics are all worth it. They’re happy to make the trip.”
Oestry’s family is one of several in Southern Illinois that are spearheading a drive to cut down the drive to school by exploring the possibility of establishing a Catholic high school in the region. The group, Families for the Advancement of Catholic Education, is a grassroots effort to bring parochial high school education to Southern Illinois.
“What we want is an alternative for our kids, where we could have an environment and school where God is involved and where the academics are a little more focused, incorporating Catholic beliefs including morality and service,” explains Oestry, who is president of the group.
She says one of the first steps toward development of the school is a display of interest. To that extent, six area students from five families make the daily drive to Notre Dame. Oestry, who drives the students each school day and works in Cape Girardeau, says the commute begins at 6:30 a.m.
“It seems like an hour and fifteen minutes is a long way, but it’s a matter of perspective. We have more families interested for next year,” she says.
Oestry says more than 500 students attend Notre Dame, and the school has been named one of the leading Catholic high schools in the nation.
“We realize that at the beginning a Southern Illinois Catholic high school will be smaller, but in the 1980s, Notre Dame was half of the size it is now,” she adds.
In addition to having area students enrolled in a Catholic high school, FACE is working to build awareness of their efforts and fund a feasibility study by the Catholic Diocese of Belleville, which would oversee any new school.
“If you want a Catholic high school, you first have to do a feasibility study that last six months to a year,” explains Murphysboro physician Jeff Rippeta, one of the founders of the group. “In that study, there will be discussions with local parishes, Catholics and other community members to determine interest.”
Rippeta, who graduated from Mater Dei High School in Breese, says the study will cost about $60,000. He says it is money well-spent to give children — including his four children who range in age from 3 to 9 — an opportunity to have the same sort of education he received.
“I had a great high school experience,” he recalls. “There were no major discipline problems anywhere. The focus was on being a good human being first and getting a great education second. I want that for my own children.”
He says that while Southern Illinois already has several Christian high schools, a Catholic high school would be unique.
“There is a different philosophy in education between Christian high schools and a Catholic high school,” he says. “It’s a hard thing to describe if you’ve not been involved in both. The goals are the same, but it’s a different style. It is an educational style that we who grew up with Catholic education desire. For me, it will be a matter of not reinventing the wheel. We can copy successful models from hundreds of other Catholic high schools.”
Rippeta says the group already has received offers of land as a potential site for the school as well as potential buildings.
“We’re not wanting for physical space,” he says.
Members of FACE invite other families to share their interest in a potential Southern Illinois Catholic High School. A meeting of the organization is set for 1 p.m., Feb. 3 at the Knights of Columbus Hall in Herrin. Individuals can also share their interest with leaders of their parish. Oestry says the organization already includes both families with high school-aged children as well as those like Rippeta with younger children.
“Our group includes parents with students going to Notre Dame all the way to those with children in preschool, all because they want to see a Catholic high school in Southern Illinois,” she says. “The sooner we can get this going, the better.”
Rippeta hopes his children can attend the new school.
“My dream is to send as many students as possible to Cape for the next four or five years while we’re working to establish the Southern Illinois school,” he says. “I’d like to see us graduate the first class from the new school in 10 years.”
Until then, students such as Hopkins will continue to wake up early and make the van ride to Cape Girardeau.