What makes this Kentucky Catholic school a success

3 mins read
Students at St. Agatha's Academy in Winchester, Ky., are pictured in an undated photo at the school store. (OSV News photo/Kate Blair, courtesy St. Agatha's Academy)

WINCHESTER, Ky. (OSV News) — Catholic schools in the United States often walk a fine line between keeping their doors open or shutting down forever. Shrinking enrollment — and sometimes shrinking parishes — are key causes of their demise making children the tragic losers.

But Deacon Ron Allen, now in his sixth year as principal of St. Agatha’s Academy in Winchester, believes the Kentucky school, founded by the Sisters of Divine Providence in 1919, has a unique model for pre-K-8 Catholic education flourishing under today’s conditions.

A deacon for the past 15 years, Deacon Allen was with IBM as an information technology program manager and later spent 10 years with Lockheed Martin.

“What I have done in my six years as principal here is bring in nontraditional teachers who have a knowledge of engineering and history, along with a background of teaching in the classical Catholic tradition,” Deacon Allen said.

St. Agatha’s boasts a Montessori-style pre-K and kindergarten program that transitions into an elementary program for grades 1 to 5, followed by a middle school program for grades 6 to 8, adjacent to St. Joseph Catholic Church.

The result of this approach, Deacon Allen explained, is a program built around the child that allows each one to think for themselves.

Members of the cross-country team at St. Agatha’s Academy in Winchester, Ky., are pictured in an undated photo. (OSV News photo/Kate Blair, courtesy St. Agatha’s Academy)

Mostly Protestant students

He recalled the words of Father Frank Brawner, the former pastor of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, who encouraged St. Agatha’s to make the transition to its liberal arts educational model a decade earlier: “You have one mission here: to create little saints.”

Every day, Catholic faith permeates St. Agatha’s, where prayer begins and ends the day. The Angelus is recited daily at noon, and the students attend Mass every Friday. Deacon Allen himself assists with Mass twice a month.

All of this and more is offered in a Catholic educational institution where 75% of its students identify as Protestant.

“And saints in progress is what we have, because SAA provides a top-notch education,” he said. The school’s solid reputation, he added, leaves people at the local high school “always amazed at how well trained our graduates are.”

Kate Blair chairs the school’s middle school department, where she teaches math and assists the principal in carrying out the school’s mission. Currently six of her 10 children attend the school.

“I am an engineer by training, and graduated from Georgia Tech with a degree in
civil engineering,” she told OSV News. As middle school department chair, Blair also plans special lunches geared to the various feast days of saints.

“We include in the saint’s feast day lunches food from their respective countries and for the solemnity of the Virgin Mary, we held a birthday party,” Blair said.

Allowing students to remain children

According to Blair, St. Agatha’s enrollment is increasing — 175 students up from 120 five years ago — and the school is celebrating 105 years this September.

“I think what has sustained St. Agatha’s Academy as a classical, Catholic school is that it gives our students the chance to remain children, while also growing spiritually and learning to pray,” Blair said.

“The classical Catholic tradition is one that embraces artes liberis or ‘the art of the children’, allowing our students to study and learn ancient history, literature and master demonstrative performance of classic writings,” she said.

These performances include poems such as Ernest Thayer’s “Casey at The Bat,” Emily Dickinson’s “Morning” or Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” and famous addresses, like Mark Anthony’s funeral oration from Shakespeare’s play “Julius Caesar.”

Each grade at St. Agatha’s studies a different time period of history from antiquity to modern history. Students also learn the building blocks of technology at age appropriate levels in every grade, which the school says involves “gaining understanding of operating systems, BIOS properties, hardware, keyboarding, applications, problem solving, technology advancements and the future.”

Susan Wallace, who has taught at St. Agatha’s for 37 years, and currently serves as its elementary grade department chair, told OSV News the academy’s focus on the liberal arts allows the students to actually see what they are studying.

“And I have noticed a twinkle in their eyes as they embrace the wonder of what they are learning,” she said.

“All of this makes St. Agatha’s Academy a wonderful place to work and one of pure joy where you can watch them grow,” Wallace said. All three of Wallace’s children attended St. Agatha’s Academy, something which she believes prepared them well for high school.

Financial help is available through St. Joseph’s tuition assistance program and distribution of the necessary funds to families is based on their individual need.

Blair said the students grow both academically and spiritually during their time at St. Agatha’s, which includes “a strong ability to pray” as well as gaining “the ability to form arguments, while also preserving their innocence as children.”

At St. Agatha’s, she said, “we value what Catholic schools are doing all across the country to raise heirs to the kingdom of God.”

Robert Alan Glover

Robert Alan Glover writes for OSV News from central Kentucky.