Small K-12 private school run by laity in Bear is recognized as Catholic by diocesan schools office
BEAR — Nineteen years after opening its doors, Aquinas Academy has been recognized as a Catholic school by the Diocese of Wilmington, and both the administration and students are excited about the possibilities that may bring.
They are also eager to explain what the small private school run by laity near Lums Pond is, and isn’t.
The diocese gave its approval to Aquinas in December, a move long sought by school founder and principal Jack Moore. He said this is something the diocese had expressed an interest in since it opened, but for various reasons did not happen until now.
“They wanted to see how we would last because obviously they didn’t want to approve something that wouldn’t be around for a while,” Moore said last week on the small campus.
Moore said he had met with Bishop Malooly and Lou De Angelo, the superintendent of schools, and they worked together to make this a reality. De Angelo said the Catholic Schools Office is pleased to welcome Aquinas into the fold and that, as such, “students and staff may participate in programs and activities in which other schools engage.”
When Moore started Aquinas, classes met at a site on Kirkwood Highway for two years before the school moved to its current location on Red Lion Road on the site of a former Coptic Orthodox church that gave them a lease with the option to purchase the land. The church is used as a place for prayer and also as an auditorium.
The school’s social hall, senior lounge and a few classrooms are connected. Other classrooms and the offices are in separate buildings.
70 students, K-12
Approximately 70 students from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade attend, although another 25 are in an affiliated home-school program, Moore said. The school is “deliberately small,” he said, although they would welcome a larger enrollment. Information about Aquinas has spread mostly by word of mouth, but he is hoping that by gaining recognition from the diocese, word will spread among parishes.
“Recently, we’ve had pastors at churches allow us to be in their bulletin. We’re hoping that will help us,” said Moore, who attended St. Peter Cathedral School and is still a parishioner there.
“We’re a very good school. One of the reasons we are good is because we’re small. Being small allows us to be very personal with the kids, to be very effective in our educational delivery. We welcome the opportunity to show people what we’re doing here, welcome them to come if they’re interested.”
Moore’s background in education is with at-risk students, which he applied at Aquinas.
“I saw that even good Catholic families were at risk, in a sense, because maintaining your faith in today’s culture is difficult. I felt that the best practices of dealing with at-risk population could be applied to Catholic students. Being a small school is a big factor. We are deliberately small for the purpose of doing what we do well,” he said.
From prayers to film festival
Most of the students have been at Aquinas most of their academic lives, and several seniors said they love what the school represents.
Emily Bryant said in the close-knit environment, she knows just about everyone and has friends from sixth grade on up. She also appreciates that they start and end the day with prayer.
“Even at lunchtime, we say the Angelus, and I just love that. Just to keep God in our day, and throughout our day, it’s just a blessing,” said Bryant, a parishioner at Holy Spirit in New Castle.
With the small size comes added responsibility, said classmate Catherine Redfield, also from Holy Spirit. The older students have to remember the younger students and be aware of how they present themselves.
Phillip Gordon said that in addition to the good study habits he’s learned, the school has helped him develop a greater appreciation for the sacraments, especially the Eucharist. He also said they learn more facts about the church, but also its mission.
“One of the main goals is that they want to teach us to understand more than to just know. It’s helped me to be stronger in my faith and to take my faith out into the world,” he said.
One of the misperceptions people have, Bryant said, is that “people think it’s God-crazy, but it’s not. It’s more like we love God but we’re not shoving it down your face the whole time.”
Academically, the seniors said they feel well-prepared for the next step.
As for extracurricular activities, the school offers basketball, volleyball and, depending on interest, golf, and competes in a conference with other small schools, most in Cecil County, Md.
The school also has plays that feature nearly every student, said Theresa Moore, Jack Moore’s daughter, and retreats, many of which are led by the seniors.
“We’ll talk to the principal and be like, ‘We want to give a retreat for seventh grade,’ and we’ll plan it and go do it. I think that’s a really awesome thing that we’re able to do,” she said.
The students also volunteer with Special Olympics.
A big event toward the end of the school year is the Don Bosco Film Festival, Gordon said. Each class produces a short film, and the festival is a red-carpet affair where everyone gets dressed up.
One step at a time
Jack Moore said the school is looking for families who want what they offer: a safe environment where fighting, cursing and other issues are largely absent. The students do well in standardized testing and receive personal attention from teachers.
“We think we’re good at what we do,” he said.
Aquinas also has been pretty good at producing students who have considered a religious vocation. One diocesan priest, Father John Solomon, attended the school, and Moore said there have been 11 students who have gone into religious formation. Not all have finished, but the rate is pretty high.
The school is excited that Bishop Malooly has scheduled a visit for April, and Bryant said she hopes the next step is that Aquinas can have a priest come to campus for Mass instead of having the students travel to St. Margaret in Glasgow once a month. Moore has thought about that, too.
“We’re hoping at some point (the bishop) can say Mass for us, but we’ll take it one step at a time.”