When Pope John Paul II Preparatory School decided a year ago to take the long-discussed step of adding middle school grades and becoming a 6-12 school, Arynn Powers was intrigued.
“Being part of the expansion, the new legacy of what Pope Prep is going to be … was a big draw,” said Powers, who joined the school’s faculty this year as a middle school math teacher.
At the same time, “It was a little bit nerve wracking for myself,” said Powers, who was leaving a place where he was comfortable, St. Bernard Academy. “I think every one of the middle school teachers that came in, took an opportunity to be part of Pope’s middle school expansion.”
Five months into the first year of Pope Prep offering grades six, seven and eight, any nervousness about the venture has disappeared. “It’s been great,” said Powers, whose daughter Adalynn joined him at Pope Prep this year as a sixth-grade student.
“It has been a really good start. We’ve been very happy,” said Pope Prep Head of School Michael Deely. “The new faculty has done a great job right out of the gate.”
Pope Prep added about 200 students in the middle school grades this year, the majority of them coming from outside the Catholic school system.
Many of the middle school students are Catholics who were attending public school, Deely pointed out. And more of the middle school students live close to the school in Sumner County than is the case for the high school students who come from a wider geographical area, he said.
Pope Prep has benefitted from the overall growth in Middle Tennessee, drawing students whose families have moved to the area from out of state, Deely said.
“We’re seeing an uptick in people coming from Catholic schools in other states,” Deely said. “When they move here, they’re going to the Catholic school first,” rather than other private schools or public schools.
The feasibility study for adding the middle school grades conducted by the Meitler consulting firm “predicted that this would provide stability in enrollment,” Deely said. And that is what school officials are seeing. “The retention is very high,” he said. “It’s been easy to keep enrollment and get enrollment for next year.”
Applications for the high school grades are up as well, and the school has exceeded its goals for the year in admissions, he added. “We’re having no problem filling every grade next year,” Deely said.
The enrollment growth has helped the school’s financial outlook as well, Deely said. Pope Prep has already far exceeded its goal for fundraising for the year, he said. “Even with inflation, we feel really good about next year.”
Pope Prep will be adding faculty positions for next year to accommodate the enrollment growth and to expand its fine arts offerings, Deely said.
‘The kids are set up to succeed’
When Pope Prep announced that it would be adding middle school grades this school year, Russha and Darryl Sage were quick to fill out an application for their son Bristol, a seventh-grade student this year.
“We were always interested in putting Bristol at Pope in the high school years,” Russha Sage said. Her family was looking for a school with a better academic program and an emphasis on the fine arts “and other activities that aren’t necessarily athletics.”
The school has been everything they hoped for, she said. “It’s always been held up as a great school, and it’s the same for the middle school,” Sage said.
“The academics have been phenomenal,” Sage said. “It’s more rigorous … but the kids are set up to succeed.”
Both she and her son have quickly become involved in the school and its extra-curricular activities.
“He’s doing theater, which he’s always enjoyed. Probably his favorite activity is forensics,” Sage said. “He also does archery. He tried wrestling and he loved it, so he’ll continue wrestling.”
Sage has been just as involved as her son. She is on the Parents Association Committee board and is the middle school wrestling team mom.
For Sage’s son and the other middle school students, the transition to a new school has been successful. “It’s been very easy for the kids to get comfortable there,” she said.
Powers’ daughter Adalynn at first was a bit intimidated to be going to school with older kids, he said. “She was definitely nervous to be walking the halls with high school students. After week two, she didn’t even notice anymore. It was just school.”
It wasn’t just the middle school students who started the year leery of the school’s new grade structure.
“I was not excited” about the addition of the middle school grades, said Riley Cork, a junior who is taking an elective this year as a teaching assistant helping in a middle school science class. But the middle school students have settled into the rhythm of the school, he added. “They’ve gotten used to being around the older classes.”
“The high schoolers, a lot of them were worried. … They have found out it’s blended and worked out very nicely,” Deely said. “Now it feels more normal than new.”
“The surprise I think for teachers was the middle schoolers were far more confident and less intimidated than we thought,” Deely said.
‘I’ve been really impressed’
For the faculty, the addition of the middle school grades also has gone well.
“They are doing really well,” middle school science teacher Jayne Tuerff said of her students. “I’ve been really impressed with them. They have adjusted very well.”
Tuerff was already familiar with Pope Prep before joining the faculty this year. Her son is a high school senior at the school. “This school has pushed him outside the box, and I love that,” Tuerff said. “And that’s happening here” in the middle school classes.
The science classes offer many hands-on activities and stress critical thinking skills, Tuerff said.
As a teacher and a parent, the experience at Pope Prep has been all positive, Powers said.
“They’re all good kids, very well behaved,” Powers said of his students. “There’s not a noticeable difference with the kids I encountered at St. Bernard.”
The academic rigor at Pope Prep has been on par with the high academic standards at St. Bernard, Powers said.
“There is no question that my daughter is getting a good education,” Powers said. “It’s the same thing” for all his students, he added.
“As a parent, the school has been great for Adalynn,” he said. “She really has grown as an individual.”
His daughter has taken advantage of the many extra-curricular activities offered at Pope Prep, including archery, Junior Achievement’s Biztown program, and the school’s Innovation and Entrepreneurship program.
“They are getting the full Pope Prep experience,” Powers said of the middle school students.
“I would never have guessed this was their first year to have a middle school,” Sage said. “It has gone that smoothly.”