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New school year brings opening of long-awaited Catholic high school

By Deacon Kyle Eller 
The Northern Cross 

While a new school year always brings excitement, this year as summer vacation comes to a close, Catholic education in Duluth is beginning a particularly notable new chapter, as Stella Maris Academy opens its long-awaited high school on a new campus, with 15 to 20 incoming freshman.

The main building at the high school campus has seen a lot of drive-through traffic by community members curious about the new mission for the facility, formerly known as The Hills. (Deacon Kyle Eller / The Northern Cross)

Formerly known as The Hills, the facility previous provided youth services and before that was a Catholic orphanage. Now serving as the new high school campus, purchased for $4 million last October, the facility is still being renovated. Phase I renovation, which is estimated to require $3 to $3.25 million in funding, will include most of the original 1909 building and is expected to be completed around Thanksgiving, said Andrew Hilliker, president of Stella Maris. 

“In a typical or ideal scenario, we would spend months planning with the architect, months implementing with contractors, and months preparing financially, etc., and we’ve condensed all of that into such a small period of time. … The fact that we’re nearing completion of demoltion, it’s really quite remarkable,” he said in an August interview. 

But in the meantime, a “really beautiful and usable space for students to spend the first couple of months of school” has been prepared. 

Much more than the physical property goes into opening the first Catholic high school in the diocese in decades, of course. 

Another major project has been the curriculum, building on the Catholic liberal arts model the school has been moving to in its pre-Kindergarten through eighth grade offerings on the three other campuses, a goal since diocesan schools were unified under the name Stella Maris Academy several years ago.

A mockup shows what classrooms at the new Stella Maris high school campus will look like when renovations are complete. 

“Those changes and that work in the lower grades, it’s just so perfect in timing that we’re adding high school programming now, because we’re making real adjustments to improve not only our outcomes but our formation of our students, and now we get to continue that on into high school.” 

That work of defining what curriculum and pedagogy will look like is being assisted by a two-year partnership with the Institute for Catholic Liberal Arts Education. 

“We can’t be the same as the school down the street and we just have Mass once a week and we pray,” Hilliker said. “We have to look at everything we do with relation to teaching and learning and forming our kids and doing it through the idea that Christ is at the center of it all.” 

An example of the difference is that many schools take a social studies approach for civics education that Hilliker said shortchanges history. 

“So we’re taking a step back and implementing a history timeline approach to learning that encompasses civics and economics and civic responsibility, but it emphasizes the history timeline that ties right in with our theology, that ties right in with Catholic social teachings and the catechism,” he said. 

He said such efforts are possible because of all the work that’s been done in the other campuses over the past several years, where the work of unification has been done and is now being built upon.

The auditorium space at the new Stella Maris high school campus will be converted back into its original purpose and function as a chapel. 

“We have just exemplary academic outcomes, but … we’re [also] experiencing just tremendous growth in our pre-K through 8 [grades] right now,” he said. “There’s a desire from our families and from our community for that return to what is important and the priorities, and that’s going to continue in making our high school be successful for a very, very long time.” 

Stella Maris was also able to hire a “very talented and committed, faithful administrator for the high school campus” in Chris Lemke, Hilliker said. Lemke was a teacher and coach in Two Harbors for many years and also served as administrator at the Mater Dei apostolate in Duluth. 

Hilliker described him as having a Passion for education and a commitment to Catholic education. “He’s been just a great asset and addition to our team.” 

Lemke will also be building a platform for activities from fine arts to athletics, allowing students to explore gifts they’ve been given, something he said is important to the high school experience for many students, beginning with a number of them this fall, including some competition with other organizations and schools. 

“It will be a good experience for our students in year one,” Hilliker said. 

While the number of incoming freshman may seem small, Hilliker said the school is expecting a much larger influx in the high school’s second year, with potentially more than 75 more students. 

“What we’ve seen is really impressive growth in our middle schools grades with the announcement of high school programming,” he said. “So, I think there are families on the [peripheries] that weren’t at Stella Maris because there wasn’t a long-term plan for a brick and mortar high schol at Stella Maris. And now that there is, those families that were hesitant to make the move only then to have to figure out a plan for high school have been motivated to make that decision to come into our academy.” 

The school as a whole, across all the campuses, has increased from 528 last year to around 600 this fall. 

Hilliker said the school has had a sense of momentum and excitement this summer, among families and staff alike. 

Response from the broader community to the new high school and new use of the historic facility has also been “very

A mockup shows what a lounge area for students at the new high school is expected to look like after renovations are completed. 

positive,” Hilliker said, with “constant” traffic coming through the property from the curious, from neighbors, and from those who had a connection to the orphanage. People are excited about it, and appreciate that it will still be serving young people. 

Hilliker said that Catholics also appreciate the fact that the facilities Catholic heritage will continue. 

A visit from a woman who had lived there as a child and brought pictures of herself with another former resident — the late Father Richard Partika — gave him different appreciation of how many youths have been served there over its more than a century of use. 

“That’s where it becomes quite humbling,” he said. 

Hilliker has been on the job for a year, which in addition to buying The Hills and opening a high school has also included a challenging school year still dealing with COVID-19. 

“We have a board, an aministrative team, and a faculty and staff that have just given remarkably of themselves to make it all happen and come together,” he said, “and I know that those things couldn’t ahve happened without those people in place that are there.” 

Looking ahead, it doesn’t get any easier he said, but that team gives him confidence. 

“There’s no shortage of work ahead,” he said. “So as much as has been done, we’ve still got a long way to go. But there’s comfort in knowing we have those people in place that we do, that it will happen with excellence.”