by Joe Bollig
GARNETT — If past trends continue at St. Rose Philippine Duchesne School here, principal Kelli Wolken is going to have a problem in a few years.
It’s this: Where is she going to put all those kids?
In the past five years, the school has increased enrollment by 71%, from 64 students in the 2016-17 academic year, to 110 students in the 2020-21 academic year.
The school, which was created by the merger of two neighboring parish schools, is supported by St. John the Baptist Parish in Greeley and Holy Angels Parish in Garnett.
Wolken marks the beginning of the rise to an all-day preschool-to-kindergarten program the school launched in the fall of 2017.
“That was a big step for us, because we are getting families in the door who might not choose us, because we offer all-day pre-K,” said Wolken. “Their kids make friends, they get a little taste of our school, they see what we’re like and they want to stay.
“What are the things they see that make them want to stay? They are the things we are most proud of in our school.”
One of those factors leading to enrollment growth — something the school is proud of — is the faculty.
“We have incredibly strong teachers in our school,” said Wolken, “in their morals, in their faith and in academics. They bond with their students tremendously.”
St. Rose is a dual classroom school, meaning grades one and two are together, as are three and four, five and six, and seven and eight. A student will have the same teacher for two years and that builds relationships.
Another factor is faculty stability.
“For a long time, St. Rose was a stepping stone for teachers,” said Wolken. “We would have a lot of new teachers come in, get a couple of years under their belt and then they’d leave for another district — one closer to their homes or one that paid better.
“Of the teachers we have now, three are alumni . . . two are married to alumni and one is a recent convert to the Catholic faith.”
And that points to another strength and reason for the growth. The faculty and staff, except for the school cook, is 100% Catholic. Everyone the students come into contact with is Catholic.
Strong support from previous pastors and current pastor Father Daniel Stover is another strength that encourages enrollment.
“Our priests have been very pro-Catholic school and very involved in the school,” said Wolken. “They meet with the kids, take them to the church and do lessons. We see our priests at every event that we have.”
“[Father Stover] knows a little bit about all our students,” she continued, “supports the school in our decisions and shares our successes with the parishioners. He gladly asks parishioners to share funds. He is very supportive.”
The parishes and the school are mutually supportive. Several parents returned to practicing their Catholic faith when their children became active at school.
But not all the students are Catholic. The school has 18 non-Catholic students because their parents appreciate the smaller class sizes relative to the public schools, the building of relationships and the teaching of morals and virtues at St. Rose.
Wolken has every expectation that enrollment growth will continue because several younger families are interested in St. Rose.
The greatest challenge the school faces because of the growth is space. The school, built in 1954, has four classrooms. Because of space constraints — and the COVID-19 pandemic — they’ve had to get creative.
The cafeteria was turned into a classroom. The library was also turned into a classroom and the books moved to the church basement — the new library.
“[Growth] has increased our class sizes,” said Wolken. “They’re a little bigger than we like. We’d love to hire another teacher and split a class. The grades one and two classroom has 30 students, and we’d love to split it.”
There have also been discussions about expanding facilities, such as building an activity center (gymnasium) and a cafeteria, but there are no definite plans yet. The school is taking things year by year.
The current maximum capacity of the school is probably 125 students.
Will they reach it?
“I don’t know,” said Wolken. “We might. It’s a good possibility. . . . If we keep getting families from outside [of the community], we’ll keep growing — not only in our school, but our parishes, too.”