Key West’s only Catholic school plans expansion to accommodate enrollment growth

The Basilica School of St. Mary Star of the Sea, serving 154 students in prekindergarten through Grade 8, will expand to serve high school students for the 2022-23 school year.

Jim Rigg likes to call the latest Catholic school enrollment trends “the Great Registration.”

Modifying the catchphrase “the Great Resignation” about the large numbers of workers leaving their employers, Rigg, who serves as superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Miami, was describing the increases in the number of students enrolling in Catholic schools, reversing years of declines nationwide.

The Miami archdiocese saw one of the largest percentage increases in Catholic school students among the nation’s largest dioceses. With 34,892 students this year, that represents 5.4% increase over last year.

Now, the trend can continue, much to the delight of parents in the Lower Keys who say they don’t want their children’s access to a Catholic education to end after middle school. The Basilica School of Saint Mary Star of the Sea, the only Catholic school in Key West, has announced plans to add a high school to its pre-K through grade 8 program.

It’s a return of sorts. Mary Immaculate High School, which opened in 1886 and merged with several other Catholic high schools in the 1960s, closed in 1986 due to declining enrollment, leaving the Basilica School, which stopped offering instruction after middle school, the area’s only Catholic school for the past 40 years.

Principal Robert Wright said the expansion was driven by enrollment that had increased 100% between 2013 and 2019.

“We have been at capacity with a waiting list since then,” he said.

During the most recent accreditation process, Basilica School parents were asked what improvements or enhancements they needed for the well-being of their child. The overwhelming response was for the addition of grades 9 through 12.

Archbishop Thomas Wenski responded by giving administrators permission to begin a feasibility study. After determining the school’s enrollment model, facilities, and financial position, Wenski authorized the expansion on March 3.

The school is expected to open for grades 9 and 10 for the 2023-24 academic year in the school’s 17,500-square-foot auditorium, which will be renovated with funds from a capital campaign that will soon be launched.

Wright said the fully accredited high school will offer students dual enrolment and advanced placement courses, the latest technology, and popular extracurricular activities, clubs, and sports programs.

“With an anticipated/expected enrollment of approximately 180 students by year three, the vision is to keep classes small, and to do small well,” Wright told the Keys Weekly.

“As valued in Catholic tradition, our new Basilica High School will continue to provide academic excellence to our community’s adolescents, while encouraging intellectual curiosity and the pursuit of truth, goodness and beauty,” Wright said.

The Basilica School currently serves 154 students who attend on the state’s income-based tax credit scholarship or the Family Empowerment Scholarship. Twenty students attend using the Family Empowerment Scholarship for Students with Unique Abilities.

(Step Up For Students, which hosts this blog, manages these scholarship programs.)se

Rigg said he is thrilled that the Basilica School is expanding to include high school.

This will be the only Catholic high school in Monroe County, and I know it will provide a rigorous, faith-based education to the people of the Florida Keys,” Rigg said. “Much of this growth is fueled by the expansion of state scholarship programs, such as those supported by Step Up for Students. The future is bright for education throughout Florida.”