Colorado’s Chesterton Academies are set to kick off the Fall semester

Vladimir Mauricio-Perez

While the current situation has challenged schools to find creative ways to teach and engage their students, the two Colorado Chesterton Academy high schools have found themselves in a unique position. The pandemic arrived just as Our Lady of Victory was enjoying its second semester and St. John Paul II in Windsor was just a few months away from its inaugural class. Nonetheless, both are set to begin or resume in-school learning in the Fall and are working harder than ever to fulfill the mission of the schools.

A dream come true

The long-awaited Catholic high school in the Fort Collins area has hired its first headmaster, Blaise Hockel, and faculty to begin the school year in August.

“Our main priority was to get a headmaster. We felt people were still in in doubt about the start of the school – since this has been in the works for a very long time – but I think that’s going to start to change now that we have a headmaster and a faculty,” said David Whitworth, Interim Executive Director of the Chesterton Academy of St. John Paul II. “The hiring committee found Blaise, and we fell in love with him. He came with great recommendations and has done a great job at advancing the hiring process for the faculty as soon as he was hired.”

Hockel, who has a Master’s degree in Education with an emphasis in Curriculum and Instruction and significant experience in classical education, will be the “spiritual and intellectual head of the school,” aided by his deep faith and love for classical education.

“This school is the fulfillment of the promise long awaited by the community, and my hope and goal is to fulfill that promise in every way, to make it something which genuinely is the center of Catholic culture and Catholic education for the persons of northern Colorado, so that we can see a spiritual boon and a great development in our love of Christ,” Hockel said.

Blaise Hockel was recently named as the Chesterton Academy of St. John Paul II’s first headmaster. (Photo provided)

The school, beginning with grades 9 and 10, has a plan for an integrated curriculum in which the incoming sophomore class will have the opportunity to receive all the components of a full education of the classical model in three years. This approach will help them secure a strong foundation in the humanities and prepare them well for their senior year and college.

“I think it’s important for people to know that this isn’t something that is simply being thrown together; it’s being very intentionally and considerably put together,” Hockel assured. “This will allow [incoming sophomores] to receive the same caliber of education, but … suited to their individual needs.”

The new faculty and staff includes Steven Lewis, who will be teaching humanities and has a background in missionary work and media evangelization, besides his training in philosophy, theology and music; Colette Ohotnicky, who will teach math, science and Latin, and has Master of Arts in Environmental Arts and Humanities; and Elizabeth Yeh, with a strong professional background, will serve as the new Executive Director.

Furthermore, the high school will be offering a deal to inaugural families: tuition for their students and any other siblings that enroll in the future will be kept at $6,000 to honor their role as a founding family.

“The first thing that the community should know is that we are an extremely dedicated group of people. The board that is working with my school is easily the most engaged and most supportive board that I have ever seen,” Hockel said. “They are going beyond any normal expectation for someone in their position, and they are all extremely well-thought, well-spoken and intelligent individuals who are working toward the longevity and fulfillment of the school’s mission.”

A fruitful year

Further to the south, the Chesterton Academy of Our Lady of Victory successfully finalized its inaugural year at the St. Louis Parish in Englewood with a class of 15 students.

For Garrett Cichowitz, Lead Teacher and Program manager of the school, the authentic relationships that the students formed were a fruitful result of the first year.

“Our students are very close, and I think that has to do not only with the classroom, with getting to be together for seven hours a day, but also with getting to be a part so many unique events that we have throughout the year,” he said.

While public activities were cancelled due to the pandemic, the students were still able to enjoy the Cultura Vitae community events to cultivate a culture of life; small concerts, in which the students shared their musical talents; weekly formation events through the fine arts, speakers and activities, such as seeing the Monet exhibition at the Denver Art Museum and going to the Colorado Symphony; prayer in front of Planned Parenthood; and making a small pilgrimage in partnership with Creatio.

“All of this is a big piece of what we mean when we talk about wanting to be an authentically Catholic school,” Cichowitz said.

Another aspect that Cichowitz believes sets a Catholic education apart is the goal to make saints and help students grow in virtue and holiness, which he has certainly witnessed during the first school year.

“We saw real growth in [this aspect]… in the sense that, as the students were put in situations where more was demanded of them and they were held accountable, they responded to the invitations of grace from our faculty and from God; they chose to be vulnerable; they chose relationship and to take ownership of their experience,” he said. “My hope is to continue to build on that, that we come into this next year stronger, continuing to grow the level of professionalism and excellence that we’re able to offer, but most importantly that we’re continuing to cultivate an authentic Catholic culture.”

The faculty at Our Lady of Victory is formed by Christina Praetzel, math and science teacher; Justin Jensen, fine arts teacher; Patrick O’Brien, Latin teacher; and Dr. Michael Kilcoyne, music director; all of whom have contributed greatly to the mission of the school during this first year. They will be joined by Alex Crane, the school’s new theology and history teacher.

“[High school] is a time when young people begin asking the questions ‘Who am I?’ and ‘Who do I want to be?’ And it’s a time where they start to take ownership of their identity and their faith. I think the family is foundational to that,” Cichowitz said. “It begins with mom and dad, and our school exists to support that the parents are the first educators. We are here to provide an environment where students are going to be surrounded by like-minded families who value the same things… That provides an invaluable catalyst for what parents are trying to accomplish in the home.”

COMING UP: After decades of anticipation, northern Colorado will have its first Catholic high school

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“No one hesitated to remind me that it was the fourth feasibility study for a Catholic high school in northern Colorado,” Dr. Margo Barnhart humorously told the Denver Catholic, stressing the longing parents revealed during the focus groups she conducted.

This desire that Catholic families in northern Colorado had displayed for nearly 40 years is now becoming a reality with the opening of the Chesterton Academy of St. John Paul II in Windsor in the Fall of 2020.

Its first campus will be located at Our Lady of the Valley Catholic Church in Windsor and it will begin with a 9th grade class, with the possibility of a 10th grade class. For many years, the closest Catholic high school has been Holy Family High School in Broomfield.

Dr. Barnhart, who serves as the Interim Executive Director for Chesterton Academy of St. John Paul II and conducted the feasibility study for the need of high schools in the Archdiocese of Denver, said that the longing of families came loud and clear in the surveys, which counted with the participation of over 2,000 families from northern Colorado, mainly Fort Collins, Greeley and Loveland.

“The main two things families wanted in the survey were a rigorous, classical curriculum and for the school to be authentically Catholic,” she said.

“Parents and principals from primary Catholic schools felt like there was no exit plan. [They] felt like their children had a wonderful, authentically Catholic education for the first eight or nine years at a small, intimate, safe, Catholic environment — and then it was a shock when they had to go to a public, charter or non-religiously affiliated high school.

No one hesitated to remind me that it was the fourth feasibility study for a Catholic high school in northern Colorado.”

“Consequently, a lot of parents started pulling their children out of the Catholic schools starting in 6th grade because they could enroll their children in charter programs at the middle school levels.

“Parents really felt that having an exit plan for their children after sending them to parochial schools was really important. And I can’t tell you how many parents told me that”, she said.

Deacon Robert Lanciotti, who serves as the Chairman of the Board of Directors of the new Chesterton Academy and ministers at St. Elizabeth Ann Seaton Parish, was happy to hear not only that a Catholic high school was opening in northern Colorado, but also that it would be adopting a classical curriculum.

Years before becoming a deacon, he served for nearly a decade on the board of directors at Liberty Common Charter School, which utilizes a classically oriented curriculum.

“I have this love with a returned classical education. When I became a deacon, my thought was, ‘This classical education is incredible, but wouldn’t it be better if Christ was at the center of it?’ I had a dream that we would have something like this happen,” he said.

e was pleased to find out that the Chesterton model had been chosen, even before he was invited to join the project.

“It really is the perfect blend of classical education with vibrant and faithful Catholicism,” he said. “The curriculum looked perfect, and the unanimous decision of parents for an authentically and vibrant Catholic school was a huge encouragement to me”.

The Chesterton Academy of St. John Paul II will be the first Catholic high school in northern Colorado and its campus will be temporarily located at Our Lady of the Valley Parish in Windsor. (Photo by Religious of Pro Ecclesia Sancta)

The Chesterton Academy of St. John Paul II will offer an integrated classical curriculum with robust spiritual and personal formation, which seeks to prepare students for both college and life. The model contains a strong emphasis on the fine arts, and its academic program is designed to help students think logically and critically in both the arts and the sciences, deepen their faith, and express themselves clearly and creatively in writing and in the arts.

The school will cooperate closely with the Archdiocese of Denver while remaining an independent, non-profit organization, with the blessing of Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila.

“What I hope parents would capture about this Chesterton Academy is that it is not just going to be a school that has good academics. We’re going to be teaching in a very rational way, where the faith is actually the center of everything. Every subject that we teach, whether it be chemistry, physics, history or economics, will have at its center the faith, and how faith and reason go together, and how the faith is actually something that complements these different academic disciplines,” Deacon Lanciotti, himself a molecular biologist, assured.

St. John Paul II was chosen as the patron of the school precisely because he embodied not only the school’s joyful character, but also its commitment to the search for truth under the light of faith and reason.

As the inaugural fall semester approaches, and the archdiocese continues its search for a permanent property, Dr. Barnhart is grateful to begin at Our Lady of the Valley Parish.

“We have beautiful facilities at Our Lady of the Valley. I’ve been a high school principal and an educator all my life, and I love the facilities we’re going to have. Of course, it will be a temporary situation… but the first thing we want to do is to get it open,” she said. “Hopefully we’re going to get so many kids that we’ll push to get the school built and moved.”

For more information, visit chestertonjpii.org.