Jul. 23—JAMESTOWN — St. John's Academy will offer eighth grade for the first time in decades this fall and expects 19 students, said Principal Jeff Trumbauer.
St. John's Academy is owned and operated by St. James Basilica. The Catholic school's last graduating high school class was in 1965, Trumbauer said. The academy continued to offer grades 7-8 for a short time but by 1968, was only an elementary school.
That changed in the fall of 2021.
The academy nearly doubled its space at the school by the fall of 2020 with a $6 million building project that included classrooms, a kitchen, cafeteria, chapel and other amenities. After that project was completed, a long-range planning committee conducted a feasibility study on whether there was interest in offering education to students beyond the sixth grade. That process, one of the last initiatives of Monsignor Jeffrey Wald, who was pastor of the basilica and died in October 2020, consisted of assessing support from stakeholders including parishioners and school and parish families.
"We got a very strong response to our evaluation and it was apparent that our families were very interested in continuing on with providing their children with a faith-based education," Trumbauer said.
The results of the committee's work were presented to the lay directors of St. James Basilica and its new pastor, the Rev. Neil Pfeifer. Trumbauer said Bishop John Folda of the Diocese of Fargo was supportive and encouraging, and Pfeifer and lay directors determined grades seven and eight should be offered again.
In the fall of 2021, St. John's Academy added seventh grade. Trumbauer said the year went well.
"I couldn't have been happier, more pleased with it," he said. He said most sixth graders attending the academy the previous year remained to attend seventh grade.
"We did some studies of other schools that had recently made a similar move, and most of those schools had told us to aim low with enrollment ... and speculated that retention rates might be sub 50 percent from grade six to grade seven," Trumbauer said.
But the academy exceeded its estimates, with 18 students attending seventh grade in the 2021-22 school year. Trumbauer said the teachers deserve the credit for how well things went.
"It's not an easy year, you're offering something that hasn't been offered here before," Trumbauer said. "We have new classes, we have new curriculum, it's the first go-around for our staff, so there was a lot. It was a busy year and we asked a lot of them."
Traumbauer said this year there are 19 students enrolled in the eighth grade and 18 in the seventh grade. He said the academy's sixth grade enrollment is also up and has a higher retention rate than seen in previous years.
"I'm very pleased and it's really a testament I think to the experience those students had in their first six, seven, eight years here from preschool all the way through sixth grade," Trumbauer said. "And I think those families put a lot of a faith in the teachers and administrators here that we would provide a good experience for them."
When classes begin this fall, 190 students are projected to attend St. John's Academy in grades K-8, the highest number in at least 10 years due to the additional grades, Trumbauer said. He says enrollment has remained steady at the academy.
"Increasing enrollment wasn't the motive for adding middle school education," Traumbauer said.
He said the those middle school years are important for young people.
"Students are in key times of their lives," Traumbauer said. "They're 12, 13, 14 years old. These are very formative years. I think it was the primary reason for us to explore this. It was to be able to educate those children at that time in their life and to ensure that Christ would be part of their education. ... There's a lot of things that they're trying to figure out. And so to be able to ensure that ... faith is incorporated to that time of their education was critical."
Students attending St. John's Academy do not have to be Catholic. Trumbauer said 60 percent of students are parishioners of St. James Basilica and 40 percent are nonparish members. Needs-based financial assistance is available through the academy's endowment fund, the Foundation for Advancement of Christian Education (FACE), to families who want to enroll their children at St. John's Academy, Trumbauer said. He said affordability should not be a hindrance to attending the school.
"We will work with any family between the basilica and between FACE to make sure that they can enroll their child," he said.
Trumbauer appreciates the community support for St. John's Academy.
"I think that the thing that I'm most grateful for here is that everything at this school that takes place and that we're able to offer is because of the generosity of others," he said. "This community has been very supportive of St. John's Academy for generations and in particular with this most recent decision to add grades."
He said the support was not only financial but also in providing resources and enrolling children in the school.
"I look at our school and our grounds and I'm proud of all the contributions that are made from volunteers to employees to our student body and our teachers and staff and our benefactors," Trumbauer said.
St. John's Academy also offers year-round child care for ages 3 to 12 including before and after school, Kids' Kingdom Preschool and an accredited prekindergarten program.
"I think we have a beautiful building inside and out but the education the children receive is even more impressive," Trumbauer said. "And I think the reason for all that is our community desires to see that faith-based education thrive."
For more information, call 252-3397 or visit stjohnsacademynd.org.