According to St. Joseph Catholic School Principal Greg Kirkham, nearly 15 percent of his school’s students come from Sedona and the Village of Oak Creek.
The statistic reveals a proportionate increase. Seven years ago, when Kirkham took on the role of principal, St. Joseph boasted 54 students, only four or five of which resided in Sedona — approximately 7 to 10 percent of the total student body. This school year, St. Joseph had 170 students, 24 of whom are bused in from Sedona.
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“I think it’s important to note that we don’t recruit students,” Kirkham explained as he walked the private school’s sprawling campus, which is located adjacent to the recently constructed Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Cottonwood. “I think we have a tremendous reputation with our teachers.”
Kirkham added that there are many reasons parents choose a new school, but that the main factor is happiness: When either party — parents or children — becomes unhappy with an educational environment, seeking out other options becomes a top priority.
“Usually, the reason is that they’re looking for something different,” Kirkham said.
For people seeking a Catholic faith-based education, in particular, St. Joseph becomes an attractive option for Sedona parents — and not just Sedona parents, it should be noted, as the school attracts students from around the Verde Valley: 20 from Cornville, 12 from Clarkdale and five from Camp Verde.
Beyond receiving a faith-based education — which, according to Kirkham, is the No.1 reason parents choose St. Joseph [82 percent of the student body is Catholic] — the principal said there are a number of factors that contributed to a three-fold increase in enrollment over the last seven years.
First and foremost, however, are the teachers.
“I learned many years ago that the quality of education is centered on the student and teacher,” Kirkham said. “Finding and attracting quality educators has to be your focus. Once that is in place the relationship of administration and school board is to support your staff. It is the relationship of the teacher and student where learning takes place.
“St. Joseph works extremely hard at increasing and maintaining our salary structure. Once you attract a quality instructor you must have a plan in place to keep them, allow them to live the life of a professional and retire as a professional who devoted much of their lives to children. We develop our budget around our staff first.”
Kirkham added that the school conducts a yearly survey of parents in order to develop the rest of the budget. Comprehensive evaluations of staff, administrators and the school’s governing board are conducted and also inform the process.
“Even during the economic downturn we made sure our staff was taken care of,” Kirkham said. “We were required to freeze salaries one year, but our board came up with funds to give every staff member a $1,000 bonus check. Every year we make every effort to give our staff a 2 percent raise in salaries. This is where we start our budget.”
Another favorable factor is St. Joseph’s emphasis on correct behavior, which Kirkham said is the opposite of a heavy-handed approach. Instead, students are taught that their success is dependent upon their own good efforts.
“Self discipline is also a key to our success,” Kirkham said. “Students must go through a selection process in order to attend St. Joseph, including a former teacher and principal recommendation, and an interview with an instructor. Not only does the teacher have to accept their new student, but the student is accepting their new teacher.”
The school — which Kirkham and company only inhabited three weeks ago, after moving from their former location two miles south along State Route 89A — is built to encourage communication. Each class looks out on a central courtyard. Classes, too, are organized with education in mind, kept small so that each student receives equal time with his or her teacher.
Given St. Joseph’s current rate of growth — 10 percent annually — the newly built facility will soon reach its maximum enrollment of 220 students. Sports programs are expected to increase with the addition of baseball and soccer fields.
Ultimately, Kirkham is humble about his own contribution to the school, crediting much of its success to his governing board. Headed by Merrily Pychinka — who also operates as the school’s business manager — the board is, in Kirkham’s words, “a working board” whose members can often be found volunteering time and expertise on campus.
“We have some of the finest professionals in our school board who understand the importance and our investing countless hours with St. Joseph,” Kirkham said. “We have business and finance experts, former educators and parents on our board. .... The board and administration are very goal oriented and always studying the future of our school.
“An important part of our success is to focus on our future and not be reactive according to the past.”