Looking down the hallways of Archbishop O’Hara High School, no difference can be seen among the students. All of them are clad in green and gold, the school’s colors, and during a Leadership Day Assembly when the keynote speaker was leading a classic O’Hara cheer, everyone screamed “Celtics.”
It would be hard to even guess that 41 members of the O’Hara student population are transfer students from the now closed St. Mary’s High School.
“I love O’Hara already,” said junior Nina Gavoli. “Every day, I have seen a new face. I have met someone that I don’t know. It has been a very smooth transition.”
In May, the Kansas City-St. Joseph Catholic Diocese closed St. Mary’s High School, which would have celebrated its 160th anniversary this fall. The original plan was to keep the high school open until St. Michael’s the Archangel opened, scheduled for fall 2015. At that time, O’Hara and St. Mary’s would merge into the new high school. However, enrollment at St. Mary’s had been rapidly declining for several years and the diocese felt it could no longer afford to keep the school open.
So for the remaining students, a decision had to be made - go to O’Hara or St. Pius X, the only other Catholic high schools operated by the diocese, or go to public school. For a majority of the students, 41, O’Hara won out. Six went to St. Pius, with the remaining handful are attending public schools.
“We were excited,” said senior Corbett McKinney, who has been at O’Hara for his entire high school career. “We knew a lot of the St. Mary’s people already from sports and grade school. We were excited for them to be a part of our community.”
Kim Felz, advancement and recruitment director for O’Hara, said O’Hara has worked hard to make sure the transition for the St. Mary’s students would be smooth. A shuttle service is offered from the Independence area for families for a small fee. Some St. Mary’s traditions have also been incorporated in various areas, such as the Sunday breakfasts for the cross country team.
Tom Bates, longtime St. Mary’s cross country coach, was one several teachers to move over to O’Hara after the school closed.
“It has gone really well,” Felz said. “All of our activities are available to them, so there is plenty of opportunities for students to get involved. All of the students are very compassionate toward one another, and O’Hara has always had a connection with St. Mary’s, so it has made the transition easier.”
The entire O’Hara student body was together Wednesday during the school’s first Leadership Day. Throughout the day, students listened to speakers and sat in sessions designed to make them stronger leaders. During the closing keynote address, given by O’Hara alum Kelly Tyler, she addressed what students can do to make others feel welcome, whether that be freshmen or transfers such as those from St. Mary’s. Senior Alex Wagner said the student mentors have made it a priority to get St. Mary’s students involved from the start, making them feel welcome in a new building.
“We wanted them to join with us,” he said. “I really felt like the schools merging now was a good step because it was somewhat gradual. Yes, we knew that they would be sad about their school closing, but this wasn’t extreme (like the merger would have been when St. Michael’s opened).”
Sophomore Lauren Smith said she really likes O’Hara. She said St. Mary’s was so small and that O’Hara feels “more like a real high school.” There are slightly more than 350 students at O’Hara this year. All of the grades except the 11th are about the same size as the entire St. Mary’s student body last year.
“Last year I was a cheerleader, and no one ever cheered with us,” she said. “Everyone here as so much school spirit. Everyone is cheering with us. It is so much better here.”
Sophomore Olivia Crabtree agreed. She said having John O’Connor at O’Hara this year has also made things easier as he has tended to look out for the St. Mary’s students. O’Connor served as principal of both high schools last year.
“I love it here. There are a lot more people to meet,” she said. “I think we are all really comfortable here already.”
McKinney said it makes him feel proud to hear that the St. Mary’s students feel like they are part of O’Hara.
“That is awesome. It makes me feel proud,” he said. “I think we all have been excited to meet new people, and this is a place where there is great spirit and community. It means a lot to hear they feel part of O’Hara.”