DANVILLE — For as long as she can remember, Kristen Cahill looked forward to becoming a Schlarman Hilltopper and wearing 'Topper blue and gold.
Unlike students before her, Kristen didn't have to wait until high school to do that. This year, she's a seventh-grader at the new Schlarman Academy, which adopted the now-closed high school's mascot and colors.
"It's going to be fun," Kristen said Wednesday evening at an all-school picnic, where school officials, staff and more than 320 families gathered to get to know each other and kick off the pre-K through 12th-grade Catholic school's inaugural year.
Elementary school students and freshmen were scheduled to attend a partial day today (Thursday). All students will attend a full day on Friday.
"We're bursting with excitement," said Principal Bob Rice, who shares leadership duties with Assistant Principal Mary Pat Shepherd. "When we first announced the formation of the academy and the closing of the schools, there was obviously a lot of emotion. We're past that. Everyone — the students, the staff, our board of trustees and our families — is extremely excited and ready to go."
Under a recommendation by the Catholic Diocese of Peoria, Danville's three Catholic schools — Holy Family School, St. Paul's School and Schlarman High School — officially united on July 1 in an effort to combine enrollments and resources, reduce operating costs and strengthen the quality of Catholic educational in the years to come.
While the recommendation initially called for moving the elementary-school programs to the 15-acre high school campus at 2112 N. Vermilion St. by the beginning of the 2011-12 school year, academy officials have been given more time to raise money for a necessary building expansion. Meanwhile, the academy will run the ninth- through 12th-grade programs at their current site and the pre-K through eighth-grade programs at the old St. Paul's School at 1307 N. Walnut St.
Since it formed in July 2010, a board of trustees has determined the academy's administrative structure, put the leadership team in place, evaluated facility needs and commissioned expansion plans, identified revenue sources and created budgets, determined educational programming and staffing and class size. It also approved a new logo and mission statement that says, "Schlarman Academy is a faith-based, preschool-through-high school educational community that promotes spiritual, intellectual, physical and moral development in a dynamic climate of academic excellence centered on Christian values and the Catholic tradition."
"We wanted to include and respect the various traditions of all of the schools to form one unified academy," said Anne Sacheli, the board chairperson.
Sacheli likened the board's task, which had to be done in a relatively short time frame, to turning around a large ship.
"At first, it was kind of hard to get going. But we're on course now and moving ahead, and we're excited about the future," said Sacheli, who credits that to the hard work of board members and support of the five parishes in the county.
The academy will open with more than 500 kindergartners through 12th-graders and nearly 100 preschoolers, although enrollment is likely to increase, Rice said.
"We lost a few students," said Rice, who attributed that to a number of reasons. He said some families favored a balanced-calendar schedule, which Holy Family had; some who sent their kids to Holy Family after St. Mary's School in Westville closed in May 2010 decided to enroll them in a school closer to home; and others weren't comfortable with the transition.
"We also lose some eighth-graders to the public schools when they transition to high school," Rice said. "That's one of the purposes of the academy — making that transition seamless."
Rice said students, as they did in their old schools, will have a challenging curriculum that will prepare them for success in college and the workplace and to be leaders. Starting this year, kindergartners through eighth-graders will be able to study foreign language through an online program by Rosetta Stone, and they will have new technology at their fingertips including interactive Promethean whiteboards, aimed at boosting engagement.
Rice said the academy has new software that will allow administrators and teachers to improve communication with students, parents, even parishioners. "Their grades, homework assignments, student handbooks, employee handbooks, teacher's web pages will all be available online," he said.
Rice said students will have an opportunity to participate in enrichment programs and community service activities such as Stand Up, Faith Alive, Community Day, peer tutoring and the food pantry.
"They'll also have that same close-knit, family-like atmosphere" that the other Catholic schools were known for, Rice said.
Eighth-grader Lexi White and seventh-grader Maisey Johnson said they were sad when their old school, St. Paul's, closed last year, but they're excited that the schools combined.
"I have friends at Holy Family, so it will be nice to see them," Lexi said.
"And it will be fun to meet new people," Maisey added.