Stepping forward in faith

By Dwain Hebda

Photos by Mike Kemp

One of the things that makes the first day of school such an enduring family tradition is the newness of it — the dawning school year full of promise, the starchy-clean outfits, the crisp, blank notebooks, the smell of a just-sharpened pencil. 

In fall 2022, St. Joseph High School in Conway took this feeling to a new level by christening a new high school building. The two-story, 39,000-square-foot high school was designed by H+N Architects and built by Nabholz Construction. 

“We had an extremely outdated facility,”       said Principal Matthew Tucker. “Even addressing the bare basics, fixing plumbing and electrical issues, the building was deteriorating. We looked at the amount of money we were spending to maintain it versus saying enough’s enough, it’s time to do something, it makes sense to build new. 

“The space that we have now, our teachers’ classrooms are immensely improved and different from what they were in the old high school. The equipment, everything is updated.”

Features of the new building include comfortable, flexible classroom furnishings allowing for collaborative learning in multiple configurations; large student common areas that double as hosting areas; and a dedicated student-run cybercafé and spirit store. 

Arguably the most substantial improvement is the many forms of technology in abundance throughout the new high school. Full wireless access, interactive flat panels in classrooms, Juno towers for intercom and remote learning capabilities and digital signage in hallways are among the improvements.

“The educational experience that we’re able to provide now is second to none,” Tucker said. “One thing Catholic schools have always done is hire great teachers, and teachers truly make the difference. But teachers can only work with the space they are given. Now, for grades 7 through 12, the space at St. Joseph is on par with any school out there.”

Tucker noted that while the new high school was a long time coming, once the parish committed to getting it built, the project came together with lightning speed, relatively speaking.

“Coach Joe Mallett was the high school principal when I was hired 14 years ago and I vividly remember him talking about a new high school then,” he said. “In the spring of 2019, a committee was formed to do a facilities review. We looked at what it would take to renovate the high school compared to the cost of building a new one. When it came down to it, there was a really small difference in cost.

“We decided to go forward with building and as we soon discovered, [Mallett] had cultivated so many relationships for so many years, that when we finally started pitching this new high school, the response was remarkable. Pledges were coming in at a much quicker rate than anticipated.”

At the end of August, the St. Joseph School Capital Campaign Committee had raised $9.55 million of its almost $11 million goal, which includes a $4 million matching grant and a $1 million pledge from the parish’s volunteer-run St. Joseph Flea Market. Even the interruption of COVID-19 in 2020 couldn’t derail the momentum, and the overwhelmingly positive response moved the project through various milestones quickly. 

“Being a Catholic school, if we are going to borrow money we have to appeal to the Diocese of Little Rock,” Tucker said. “I can’t go to a bank to borrow money; I go to the diocese. And before you can do that, you have to meet a threshold; you have to have 80 percent of whatever you’re asking for pledged. 

“Then, we had to get school board approval, pastoral council approval, diocesan approval. Eventually, we even had to get Vatican approval, believe it or not. It’s a process that could have taken six to nine months, but we got it done in about a three- or four-month window.”

The pace of construction was equally brisk, commencing in July 2021 and finishing on time for first day of school in August 2022, with only work on the school’s black box theater left to complete. Those efforts are expected to be finished before summer break 2023.

Tucker said the new facility not only puts St. Joseph in a better position to attract additional students going forward, but it also now has room to accommodate that growth. Currently, 192 of the school’s total enrollment of about 500 are in grades 7 through 12; the new high school can comfortably accommodate 300 students.

“Simply put, if you’re not building for growth, you have underbuilt your facility,” he said. “If you build for what fits you now, it’s going to be too small in just a few years. That’s just not being a good steward of money.”

Even as the finishing touches are being put on the shiny new high school and students settle into the routine of a new year, Tucker is already turning his attention to the next chapter in the St. Joseph story.

“We talk about how we are a parish community and a school community, and we are,” he said. “But right now [our campus is] divided by a four-lane highway that makes it truly challenging for our school community to connect. I personally look forward to the day I can get up from my office and walk through a door and I’m in a new kindergarten through sixth-grade building where I can interact with students as much as I do with students here at the high school. That is my ultimate goal.

“I would love to see us breaking ground in four years and done in five. It might take longer, and I have to be prepared for that. But then again, just like this project, I may be amazed and it could happen sooner.”

Dwain Hebda