HCP photos by Caitlin Forsha
HCP photos by Caitlin Forsha
Every first day of school brings a certain level of excitement, but for St. Mary Catholic School in Hillsboro, the start of the 2019-20 academic year carries special meaning. When students return on Aug. 14, St. Mary will be starting their 20th year as a school, a milestone made possible by “faith and determination,” according to staff members.

To celebrate this milestone, a kickoff for the 20th-year celebration for St. Mary Catholic School will be held Sunday, Aug. 11.

Bishop Joseph Binzer will be celebrating Mass at 3 p.m. at St. Mary Catholic Church. According to an invitation by the school, “all those who had the vision for the school and the tremendous amount of faith and determination to see it to fruition will be recognized. Former and present students, staff and administration are encouraged to attend the celebration marking the beginning of the school’s 20th year.”

Speaking to The Highland County Press about the school’s first 20 years were teacher Michelle Salyer and administrative assistant Linda Bradford, both of whom have been involved with St. Mary since its planning stages; Mary Stanforth, the school’s longest-tenured principal; and Amanda Hunter, the current principal. Along with Bradford serving as the school’s secretary for the past 20 years (as well as secretary for the parish), Salyer had a child in the school’s inaugural class, taught art as a volunteer and now teaches religion and works for the church.

Although St. Mary is celebrating its 20th anniversary as a school, plans officially began in February 1998, with a committee also including Doug and Ann Ernst; Robert and Tami Florek; Pat Hagen; Renee Hagen; Kathryn Hapner; Jim and Kathy Hehl; Cathy Ledger; then-pastor of St. Mary Catholic Church, Stanley Luehrmann; Dean and Julie Otworth; Robert and Debbie Powers; Patty Reinholz; and Kelly Wehrung.

“Bob Florek pushed it through and started a formation committee to start the school,” Bradford said.

Bradford and Salyer said that Florek visited other parishes to learn more about starting a weekly bingo night at the church to raise enough money to start the school. Two decades later, the bingos continue to help fund the school.

“We started bingo years before we even opened the doors,” Salyer said.

Along with raising money, Salyer said the committee met frequently to plan all the logistics with running a school.

“We were meeting a lot, and we took a leap of faith,” Salyer said.

The organizers also had to gain approval by the Archdiocese of Cincinnati before opening St. Mary.

“Looking back on it now, I think, ‘how did we ever think we could start a school?’” Bradford said. “I don’t know how we did that.”

But start it they did, offering two grades when the school opened. St. Mary began its first year in fall 2000 with one teacher and administrator, Mary Ann Sullivan; Bradford as administrative assistant; and a total of 12 students in first and second grades.

Bradford laughed as she remembered starting her job at the school, without a desk or a computer – “just a counter” in an empty room. During her lunch break from her job at the time, Salyer had to help Bradford on the first day by creating and printing basic paperwork, including sheets to keep track of attendance.

“I had no computer, no desk, no paperwork, not even an ink pen,” Bradford said. “I just had to wing it.”

“It was crazy, but it was fun,” Salyer said. “What did we know? We were young.”

Third and fourth grades were added the following year, with fifth grade added in the 2002-03 school year. Sixth grade classes have been offered in some years, with the school currently offering preschool through fifth grade. Before- and after-school care is also available for St. Mary students.

“Our numbers for our grades have changed over the years,” Salyer said. “There were years we went farther and then scaled back. It’s kind of by the numbers.”

Stanforth said accreditation is only offered through the eighth grade, and the school feels that sixth grade is a good “transition” year for students to move to the public schools at the start of junior high.

From its humble beginnings to its current status, its staff members say the school has seen many changes in the past two decades.

One of the most significant moments was building the church’s addition for the school, which was open in the 2005-06 school year.

“In 2005, we started in this new building,” Bradford said. “Father Luehrmann was the priest that was actually the one who saw the vision and supported the school, so the hall is named after him.”

The school added Little Patch of Heaven Preschool around 2007, Bradford said, with Salyer calling the preschool “phenomenal.”

“We have a 3-year-old program and two 4-year-old programs, early 4 and kindergarten prep,” Bradford said.

Stanforth said they offer an all-day program, which is a big draw for many parents in the area, and there’s often a waiting list.

“They do such a fantastic job,” Salyer said.

In May 2010, the school received full accreditation from the Ohio Catholic School Accrediting Association. According to that organization’s website (ocsaa.org), the process involves an “Accreditation Dashboard” with forms and guidelines, with the accreditation requiring “schools to show evidence that they are implementing OCSAA Standards.”

“That was a lot of work,” Stanforth said.

Along with being fully accredited, Hunter added that all of the school’s teachers are state-licensed.

The school received approval from the Ohio Department of Education as a “provider” for the Educational Choice Scholarship starting in 2014. The income-based scholarship pays 100 percent of the qualifying students’ tuition.

Hunter said that another significant change was the addition of a new playground in 2017.

Another way the school has evolved through the years is with their lunch program. At the beginning, students had to bring their lunch to school every day. After a couple of years, parents began volunteering to prepare and serve meals.

“On Wednesdays, there would be a parent volunteer that came in, and they fixed lunch and covered the office,” Bradford said.

Now, a hot, homemade lunch is offered every day of the week for students.

The parish also recently upgraded the wi-fi for the building, and the school has also implemented more advanced security upgrades, including a camera at the door to monitor visitors.

For more reflections on the past 20 years, the two decades’ worth of St. Mary staff, parents, students, friends and supporters are encouraged to attend the special Mass and to RSVP by calling (937) 840-9932. Hunter also welcomed the public to attend two upcoming fish fries, which will be hosted by the Knights of Columbus Sept. 14 and 21 as a fundraiser for the school.

In addition, the four women invited parents from Hillsboro and other surrounding areas to look into the Catholic school. Stanforth said that although St. Mary is located in Hillsboro, they accept students from across the county and beyond, with children from all five Highland County school districts, Peebles and East Clinton districts among those who’ve attended the school.

“You also don’t have to be Catholic to come to St. Mary,” Stanforth said.

Salyer said that in some years, “only a handful” of students have been Catholic.

“The bottom line is they come here because it’s safe, and it’s a faith-based curriculum,” Stanforth said.

Registration is open now for preschool through fifth grade, with an open house scheduled for Aug. 13 at 6 p.m.

“A high percentage of our students at St. Mary have gone on and completed college and higher education,” Bradford said. “They’ve all done well when they’ve transferred to the public schools.”

For more information on St. Mary, call (937) 840-9932 or visit http://www.stmaryofhillsboro.com.