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BYH, have the courage to be disliked....

Athletic campus spurs growth at JPII: Catholic high school has come a long way in 20 years, staff and students said

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Karla Ceniceros-Segura, a junior, is in her first year at John Paul II Catholic High School. She previously attended Farmville Central High School. “Class sizes are smaller," she said of her new school. "The teachers pay more attention to you personally.”

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By Kim Grizzard
The Daily Reflector

Sunday, January 20, 2019

A couple of Fridays ago, after waiting for the better part of a decade for the squad to get off the ground, John Paul II Catholic High School cheerleaders stepped out onto the court for the first time in their new navy and gold uniforms. But, in retrospect, it seems like perfect timing because there is much to cheer about right now.

The school of 80 students is positioned to nearly double in enrollment next year. At the same time, its 14th Street campus is practically quadrupling in size with the addition of 23 acres and a $10 million sports complex. With it comes a plan to field the school's first football team, which is expected to begin the 2019 season on the only field turf playing surface in eastern North Carolina.

“Some days I pull in and I look around and go, 'Wow! We have come a long way in a very short time,'” Principal Craig Conticchio said in an interview last week. “But I'm not terribly surprised. I think there's a core group of people that always knew that this was going to turn into what it's turning into now.”

When the school opened nearly a decade ago, that group of believers was a small one, and not even Conticchio was a member. Then a physics instructor at East Carolina University, Conticchio remembers one of his colleagues asking him to call the principal of the local Catholic high school, which was in need of a part-time physics teacher.

“I said, 'What Catholic high school?” Conticchio recalled. “I didn't even know it was here at the time.”

Few people did. John Paul II had 25 students in a handful of mobile classrooms when it began on the campus of St. Gabriel's Catholic Church in 2010.

Mike Fedewa, superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Raleigh, said John Paul II, one of only two Catholic high schools in a diocese that covers half the state, was more than 15 years in the making.

“I came to the diocese in 1994; at that time people in Greenville wanted a Catholic high school,” Fedewa said. “There were at least three different attempts to get this school off the ground.”

The project attracted a wealth of interest, much of it from families whose children attended Greenville's St. Peter Catholic School, a pre-kindergarten through eighth-grade school that traces its origin to 1946. But with few funds to match, organizers could not afford to purchase property for a new school.

After three failed attempts, the diocese stepped out in faith, purchasing about 60 acres adjacent to St. Gabriel's Catholic Church on Dickinson Avenue.

The plan was for the new school to spend its early years operating out of mobile units and some shared space with St. Gabriel's, including offices and a gym. A capital campaign would come later.

The diocese had projected that John Paul II would have an enrollment of 75 to 100 students per grade level after about five years, but growth was slower than anticipated.

While the school worked to build a college preparatory curriculum with Advance Placement offerings in core subjects and additional courses in fine arts and theology, the lack of a permanent structure was difficult to overcome.

“People had a lot of questions about the stability of the school,” Fedewa said. “One of the criticisms we were hearing is that people didn't want to spend money to send their kids to a private school that's basically working out of trailers.”

In August 2014, a handful of the school's supporters paid about $2 million for the old Unity Free Will Baptist Church building. The following year, John Paul II moved its classrooms to what was then called the school's east campus. The plan was for the school to lease the former Unity building on 14th Street until sufficient funds could be raised for construction on Dickinson Avenue, where students continued to practice and play sports.

“This was a good opportunity to get more central in town,” Conticchio said. “Even then, the intention was still to build over there (Dickinson Avenue) and move back over there.”

Along with the new location came increased visibility. Parents with students at both the city's Catholic schools liked the fact that the new campus was closer to St. Peter. It also was a more central location for students attending from Vanceboro, Chocowinity, New Bern and Washington, N.C. Within a year, the school decided it would be better to put down roots.

“It wasn't that we set out and said, 'OK we're going to abandon out there (Dickinson Avenue),” Fedewa said, adding that the diocese continues to own the acreage adjacent to St. Gabriel’s. “That wasn't the original intent, but the longer we stayed at the site on 14th Street, the more it became clear that there were many more advantages to staying where we were.”

The only disadvantage was that the school's athletics facilities remained across town, leaving coaches and students with a 20-minute drive after school to practice or play a home game.

“I sort of had a vision at that point that if we ever got ahold of that piece of property (next door on 14th Street), we could build the rest of our campus, build the athletic parts, and we could be right here in the center of town, have everything right here,” Conticchio said.

“That was sort of the vision at the time. We just had no way to make it happen until the Balots came along and literally asked us, 'What is your vision?'” he said. “We shared that with them and, by the grace of God, they made it happen.”

Rich and Colleen Balot, whose four children are still too young to attend John Paul II, have helped to fund that athletics campus and some $2 million in scholarships for the school, where an estimated 80 percent of students receive some scholarship funding.

Among them is Kaya Johnson, a sophomore transfer student from J.H. Rose High School who was drawn to John Paul for its small class size, opportunities for student leadership and its academic success record.

Doug Smith, the school's director of recruiting and advancement, said the members of the Class of 2018 scored 60 points above the national average on the SAT. More than 95 percent of graduates were accepted at their first-choice colleges, including schools such as Notre Dame, Penn State, Northwestern, Villanova and the University of Virginia.

Freshman Dillon Gregory, who attended A.G. Cox Middle School last year, is also a scholarship recipient. Dillon, who has been hoping to attend John Paul II since seventh grade, runs cross country and plays soccer, in addition to being a member of the school's swim and cheer teams.

He remembers seeing plans for the new athletics campus when he and his parents arrived at John Paul II for a tour.

“For us, we kind of had to believe in the vision, while next year they can actually see it,” Dillon said. “Once everybody can see it physically and it's done, I think we'll have more interest.”

Since the groundbreaking on the athletics complex in April, Smith said the school has seen an uptick in applications.

“Athletics is a big part of the high school experience whether you're the one on the field or with the fans cheering,” he said. “It's mid-January, and I already have 63 applications for next year, and we only lose 10 seniors.”

The school expects enrollment to jump to 130-150 students next school year when its football program is due to launch.

“We're anticipating that we'll have to add onto that facility at some point in the near future,” Fedewa said of the 22,460-square-foot classroom building, which has space for about 240 students. “That's how strong of a response we're getting.”

The athletics campus, which remains under construction, also will include a gymnasium, along with baseball and softball fields and two beach volleyball courts. Plans call for the addition of tennis courts in the next phase of development.

“(They) started the school on a shoestring,” Conticchio said. “Our alumni and their parents, those brave 25 that sent their kids to a brand-new school as freshmen and there's nothing else there except for trailers, they took a big leap. I hope and I pray that when they drive by here and they see all this that they understand that they helped build it.”

Fedewa agrees that the school's recent growth is really the result of years of effort.

“Dr. Tom Ruffalo and a whole group of folks, you're seeing the fruit of what they have envisioned happening in Greenville for some time,” he said.

“We had three different committees that got established to get this thing up and running, and all three times it crashed for a variety of reasons,” Fedewa said. “This time, I think it's divine intervention and the generosity of so many people. It's not going away.”

Contact Kim Grizzard at kgrizzard@reflector.com and 329-9578.

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