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20110816-Juan-Diego-Academy-001Juan Diego Academy opens Monday

MISSION — In just a few days, Juan Diego Academy will welcome its first group of freshman students to the campus located near Granjeno. The first Catholic high school in Hidalgo County is expecting between 20-25 students on its first day of class.

“We are looking forward to starting off small so we can focus on the needs of the students,” said Juan Diego Academy President Sister Marcella Ewers.

Ewers’ excitement for the new school is palpable.

“We have been working on this goal for many years and it has finally come together with the help of our community, the Diocese of Brownsville, and our board members,” she said.

Ewers is a member of the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul and her ministry as a religious sister has been in education since she became a nun. She has served as a teacher, principal and president of other Catholic schools and for 14 years she served as the superintendent overseeing all the Catholic schools in the Rio Grande Valley.

With the addition of Juan Diego Academy, there will be a total of 14 Catholic schools in this region.

20110816-Juan-Diego-Academy-003“There is a very strong Catholic community in the Rio Grande Valley and many people are very excited about the opening of Juan Diego Academy,” said Ewers.

Several of the members have made pledges to support the Upper Valley’s new Catholic high school and some are volunteering their time prepping the school for the arrival of its first students. Board member Bob Dyer and his wife, Christina, have been at the forefront of the landscaping of the campus.

Some of the board members also have children that will be attending the school and some are just committed to their faith and letting God guide them in their efforts to bring this Catholic school to the community.

As Ewers focuses on the overall development and financial support of the school, Bob Schmidt stands as principal of Juan Diego Academy.

Schmidt also has an extensive religious background, having received a Catholic school education since kindergarten to having received his master’s in religious education from Loyola University in Chicago.

In preparation for the new school, Schmidt has brought together a team of highly qualified educators who share the same vision of providing a spiritual and Catholic faith-based learning environment to Juan Diego Academy students. This team is comprised of part- and full-time teachers, a coach, a librarian and a counselor.

Juan Diego Academy sits on 40 acres that previously housed the St. Peter Novitiate and Diocesan Seminary. Five buildings are situated on about half the area of land available, which Schmidt said they plan on expanding as the school grows.

Right now there is a cafeteria, a library, a chapel, a new technology-capable math and science lab and an administration building.

After a fire destroyed the novitiate, board members for the high school approached Bishop Daniel E. Flores about securing the property here for a school.

The school will follow the Texas Catholic Conference Education Department curriculum, so instead of a 4x4 curriculum – meaning four courses for four credits, they will have a 5x4 curriculum, which includes religious studies.

The school will help students prepare for college and plans to offer dual and concurrent enrollment and eventually online courses.

“We want to keep the best interest of the students in mind and give them the best opportunity to be successful as they go off to college,” said Schmidt.

The school will start with only ninth-grade students and each year they will add a grade level, eventually getting to a four-year high school status. Right now there are five classrooms and the school could eventually house up to 500 students.

20110816-Juan-Diego-Academy-005The first class of students are from Mission, McAllen, Edinburg, Alamo and Rio Grande City, said Schmidt.

“We’ve already talked to all the students to find out what their interests are because we plan on offering extracurricular activities as well as competitive sports,” Schmidt said. “Right now it looks like we will definitely have the students elect class officers to form student leadership and we plan on offering volleyball, cross country, swimming, boys and girls basketball and maybe tennis.”

Although there is not an official gymnasium site, Schmidt plans to work around that and make multiple use of another space. In the meantime, Ewers has submitted a grant that would fund a gymnasium for the campus.

“We want to make an impact on our students,” Schmidt said.

Giving the students access to technology is a must for Schmidt. He explained that the entire campus has wireless Internet access and each student will be assigned a laptop that they will use on a daily basis.

“Basically, the computer lab is wherever the student is,” Schmidt said. “We will be giving each student a flash drive that will have several of the books they need, some of their books will be available online as well. Plus as far as research goes, they will have access to Region One’s database of articles.”

Schmidt is not only the principal, but he will also teach religion to the students. His classroom is just down the hall from his office and he said he’s blessed to be part of Juan Diego Academy from the inception.

“We will start each school day with prayer and announcement inside our chapel,” said Schmidt. “And every Wednesday morning we will have a Mass. We don’t have a chaplain, but will be inviting area priests to come give the Masses.”

Class begins Monday at 8:20 a.m. and a special Mass will be held Aug. 24 at 9:45 a.m. where Bishop Daniel E. Flores will be there to dedicate and bless the school.

“This is a dream come true for many of us,” Ewers said.


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