Work begins on $4.2 million Aquinas Academy expansion project
By Deborah Deasy
Published: Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Hurling holy water through a chain link fence, Bishop David Zubik blessed a chunk of gaping ground last week off West Hardies Road in Hampton.
Crews recently opened the earth in front of Aquinas Academy to build a two-story classroom building.
“Grant, too, that it may progress to its completion,” Zubik prayed, invoking God's blessing on the $4.2 million expansion.
Graziano Construction broke ground for the structure on Aug. 27. The new building — slated for completion in June 2014 — will include 11 classrooms, two science laboratories, and three rooms for art and music studies.
The academy's high school students primarily will use the building.
“We'd like to have it finished to start the new (school) year,” said Mike Burchill, assistant head of Aquinas Academy.
More than $4 million in donations will pay for the building.
Three individuals each donated $1 million to the project. Seventy percent of the academy's families donated or pledged the additional $1.2 million.
“Approximately half of the total pledges have been received,” said Peter Blume, president of the academy's 15-member board of directors and a partner at Thorp Reed & Armstrong, a Downtown law firm.
Blume's wife, Patty, teaches first grade at Aquinas Academy. They have eight children.
“Four are graduates (of Aquinas Academy),” Blume said. “Four are still in the school.”
Cramped quarters inspired the capital campaign to raise money for the building. “We're completely out of classroom space,” Blume said.
Aquinas Academy opened in 1996 with 13 students. More than 360 kindergartners through 12th-graders now attend the school. More than 30 children ages 3 and 4 also attend the academy's programs for preschoolers.
“We feel fortunate to have that growth because we recognize that we're in a very good school district — Hampton School District,” Blume said. “Obviously, there appears to be a niche for a K through 12 (school) that is Catholic.
“We really want to demonstrate that being a school that emphasizes faith formation is not in any way at the expense of academic excellence.”
Last year, more than one third of the school's 12th-graders earned perfect scores of 800 on the critical reading part of the standardized SAT test for college admissions.
Aquinas Academy offers a rigorous classical curriculum and employs about 40 full- and part-time teachers. The school operates on the 13-acre, former site of St. Catherine of Sweden Church. Annual tuition ranges from $1,150 for 3-year-olds to $9,031 for high school students.
“It's a unique expression of Catholic education and the first lay-run Catholic school in our area,” said Zubik, bishop of the Diocese of Pittsburgh.
On Sept. 9, Zubik celebrated Mass in the academy's chapel before proceeding outdoors for the ground-blessing as a brass quintet played “All Creatures of Our God and King.”
Performing the hymn were academy students Harry Scherer, 13, of the North Side on clarinet; Joseph Richthammer, 15, of Hampton on trumpet; Max Meland, 13, of Shaler, also on trumpet; Richard Meland, 16, of Shaler on trombone; and Susan Meland, 10, on French horn.
Richard Meland of Shaler, father of the Meland siblings, directs the student choir at Aquinas Academy, in addition to teaching Latin and theology. Rosemary Meland, his wife, also teaches theology at their children's school.
“Parents have a lot of impact at the school,” Richard Meland said. “Their concerns get heard, right away.”
First-grade teacher Mary Kay Tappe of Zelienople is the mother of three Aquinas Academy alumni and one current student.
“The teachers not only care about your child's education, but about your child's growth in virtue — being responsible for you actions, and learning how to glorify God in everything you do,” she said.
After the ground-blessing, Zubik gave the academy permission to schedule an extra day off this school year.
Leslie Mitros, head of the school, expects to use “free” day to extend the Christmas break.
Deborah Deasy is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-772-6369 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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