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Transitioning into Tolton

Columbia's Catholic high school students adjust to changes

October 25, 2012 | 12:00 a.m. CST

The bell rings, and dozens of teenagers rush into the Father Tolton Catholic High School lunchroom. Salads are served with heaping stacks of pepperoni pizza slices. There are challenges at the young school, but digesting lunch isn’t one of them.

Tolton is in its second year as Columbia’s first Catholic high school. It’s composed mostly of freshmen and sophomore students. There are only a few juniors, and there’s no senior class. Students know exactly how many of their peers walk the halls beside them, 115, which describes to a Tolton-capital-T the closeness of its community.

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As established as some aspects of the school might seem, such as its bustling lunchroom and finished building, the student body is still in transition. Tolton kids come from all types of junior high schools, from public to private, secular to Catholic.

Non-Catholic students come to Tolton for a variety of reasons, including confusion at Columbia Public Schools’ high school district reapportionment to make way for Battle High School. For Annie Coleman, a non-Catholic freshman, the transfer was daunting because of her background. She says her family doesn’t identify with a religion, but the faith-based curriculum, including prayer before class and Christian-based service, has broadened her perspective.

Non-Catholic students aren’t the only ones adjusting to change. Some students from Columbia Catholic School feel freer at Tolton. A few freshmen noted how they liked being able to use their phones at lunch, and some felt that they could trust their peers enough to not use locks on their lockers.

Before this year started, the founding students were skeptical. Caroline Parker, a sophomore, worried the newcomers would disturb the closeness of their established group. Still, she wanted to make them feel welcome, so she went to her religion teacher with the idea for a “boot camp” orientation.

Tate Cooper, a freshman, says that the day-long orientation saved him from feeling lost as he did when he started at West Junior High School. “At public school, the first week is orientation,” he says. “Here, it was more efficient.”

Tolton students describe scenes of tearful goodbyes — “crying circles,” freshman Danielle Richter calls them — with old friends. Caroline says her Boonville friends still ask her when she’s coming back.

They also ask about the uniforms. According to a group of roundtable attendees, uniforms save time in the morning and put the focus on personality rather than appearance. That doesn’t mean lost originality, as shown by Danielle’s nails. “I mean, come on,” she says. “They’re sparkly orange.”

The top challenge of transitioning to Tolton, according to students and parents, is the increased academic expectation. With yearly tuition as high as $8,132, parents expect their children to be pushed and prepared for college. Although students complain about the amount of homework, they appreciate the challenge overall. As sophomore Clay Harrison puts it, they’re suffering now to succeed later.

Some parents seem content with the lessons taught by a tougher grading scale and different curriculum. Sarah Eber, a mom and athletic booster, says it was difficult at first for her freshman daughter to transition from public school because she can’t slide by doing just enough at the end of the semester.

Andrea Reddick, a mother of two Tolton students, says her daughter also had to adjust, and her son had to get used to the fewer freedoms at Tolton than at Rock Bridge High School, such as closed-campus lunches.

The challenge is an expected part of the journey, however. John Cleek, a father of a sophomore and junior, says, “We sent them here for a reason.” Be it the faith, academics or community, Tolton students are there and continue to keep the school transitioning.

Read the story behind this article, as told by department editor Kate Everson.

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