John Paul the Great Catholic School Faces Unique Challenges in Athletics

First year high school Pope John Paul the Great is trying to form, but not force, traditions as they bring together students that attended about 60 different schools last year from all over the region.
By Preston Williams
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 5, 2008

They bound into the gymnasium to rousing classical music, smiling, decked out in green, black and white jerseys, homemade T-shirts and face paint. Their school is so new that it has no mascot and cannot be found on MapQuest, even when the complete address is provided.

Yet with minimal goading from a teacher, the 200 or so Pope John Paul the Great Catholic High School students, strangers for the most part two months ago, are more than happy to broadcast, in unison, their affiliation.

Their booming chant of " We Are! John Paul!" roared from one end of the bleachers to the other on a recent Thursday afternoon during the first pep rally for the southeastern Prince William County private school.

New high schools open in the Washington area almost every year. John Paul the Great opened this fall for freshmen and sophomores and eventually will accommodate about 1,000 students in grades 9 through 12.

What makes John Paul the Great different is that it will be the largest Catholic high school between Richmond and Alexandria, filling a void for families who pined for a Catholic high school education but not for the rush-hour commute to Arlington (Bishop O'Connell), Alexandria (Bishop Ireton) or Fairfax (Paul VI Catholic) to get one.

Unlike new public schools, however, John Paul's student population is not coming from another high school or two, or from a few feeder middle schools. Its students hail from as far south as Fredericksburg, as far north as Maryland and as far west as Gainesville, on the opposite end of Prince William County.

John Paul's 204 students attended about 60 schools last year, about half of them private and half public. The school's buses haul students from 10 stops throughout the region. An open house Saturday is expected to garner even more interest in the school.

Team unity is coveted on the most experienced of high school squads, and it can be a particular challenge for first-year John Paul athletes who, as program pioneers, might need name tags more than jersey numbers. The teams have players with widely varying skill levels, from those with no fundamentals to others with varsity experience from their previous high schools. The teams are playing junior varsity schedules this year.

Athletics "is such a good foundational piece to building a new school," said Jennifer Cole, the school's director of admissions and marketing, who fields many sports-related questions from interested parents. "What's happening on teams and in how the kids are relating to each other and their coaches builds strong relationships."

John Paul, with a tuition of $8,700 for Catholics and $12,500 for non-Catholics, is located about three miles off Interstate 95 on Dominican Drive. The school's 40 acres, ringed by woods, are tucked in off bustling Route 1 in Dumfries, an unusually pastoral setting for a school with "turn right at the Wal-Mart" driving directions. School personnel have reported seeing deer, turkeys, eagles and ospreys around campus, and the only neighbor in sight has a pet rooster.

A wooden archway greets visitors at the main entrance and ushers them to the chapel, the architectural centerpiece of the $60 million state-of-the-art school with a bioethics curriculum that, according to the school Web site, "tries to figure out whether our use of scientific knowledge dealing with the physical life of human beings is morally good or evil." Students examine such topics as artificial human reproduction, stem cell research, euthanasia and organ donation.

The chapel serves as a constant reminder of what is referred to by many as the school's "mission."

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