Twenty-five years ago, the founding parents of Aquinas Academy of Pittsburgh took the leap of faith to shape the new school’s curriculum, independent of the curricular expectations of the local Diocesan elementary and high schools. The vision of the founding parents was for their children to benefit from an academically challenging curriculum, rooted in Catholic formation, faithful to the magisterium, with the Eucharist as an integral part of each school day. In addition to high academic expectations, the leadership empowered students to be the active principle in their own education through support and formation.
To this day, the academics at Aquinas are strengthened in the alignment of curriculum from Kindergarten through 12th grade, with the students and teachers from all three divisions (lower, middle, and high school) located on one campus. Within each department, there is integration and oversight of curriculum from top down, with department chairs overseeing the scaffolding of concepts between each grade level. The internal development of curriculum, overseen by the Academic Committee of the Board of Directors, allows for the ability to make changes in pacing, content, and textbooks.
When Aquinas Academy of Pittsburgh opened its doors in August 1996, to its first fourteen students with the blessing of the local Bishop, it was the first (and only) parent-owned and parent-operated independent Catholic school in the Diocese. The original fourteen students were in grades five through eight; and the intention was to add a grade up and a grade down each year until the school reached a full complement of grades K through 12.
Today, Aquinas Academy serves over 500 students in grades Pre-K through 12. It is the only K – 12 Catholic school in Southwestern Pennsylvania. The curriculum is classically oriented. Beginning in middle school, students study Latin, and benefit from an integration within the humanities between the literature they read and the history they are studying. There is an authentic joy in the daily celebration of liturgy, and frequent opportunities for confession.
In an unusual way, the independence of Aquinas Academy within the Diocese of Pittsburgh has allowed for strong development of the sacramental life of the students. The school is founded in the Spirit of Opus Dei, although not an Opus Dei school. From the start, the opportunity for daily Mass has been central to the school’s mission. Because the school has had the blessing of the local Bishop from its founding, Mass is able to be celebrated in the Chapel on Campus. Interestingly, Aquinas does not have a regular Chaplain. The Opus Dei priests in Pittsburgh are the Mass Celebrants two days a week, and provide scheduled Confession for students on those two days. But the Diocesan and Order Priests in the surrounding parishes are also happy to accept Aquinas’ invitation to celebrate Mass. They see and experience the benefit of daily Mass in the lives of the students. All the participating priests are gratified by the reverent celebration of Mass at Aquinas, and the joyful participation of the students.
When Aquinas was structuring the re-opening plan following the shutdown due to the pandemic, daily Mass was the first consideration and investment of funds to bring about the successful re-opening. Parent volunteers helped to build a portable altar and linens so that Mass could be offered from the landing of the main entrance to the school, with students outdoors, spread across the parking lot on beach towels. An excellent sound system was purchased which could easily be set up daily. God blessed that effort with good weather, and Mass was outdoors in the fall of 2020 for all but a handful of days, through Thanksgiving! It was also a very moving witness to the passers-by, to see 450 kids on their knees in the parking lot during the consecration, which was visible from the road.
A few years ago, an Aquinas Academy alum contacted Principal Leslie Mitros regarding DIA Schools Collaborative membership as its mission aligned with Aquinas Academy’s. Principal Mitros observed that “The Catholic world is small, and, not surprisingly, many of the member schools were known to be faithful to the magisterium, and mission-driven to evangelize within their schools and communities.” So joining DIA Schools Collaborative was the logical next step.
Principal Mitros states, “I attended the fall Schools Summit in Nashville, along with our Middle School Director. For me, the most valuable time was the opening session with the Heads of the Member Schools. It was refreshing to be among peers throughout the conference who are not competing with each other, but who offer support and helpful suggestions so that each school can adopt best practices in the noble work of Catholic education. I found all of the Summit speakers to be helpful, and the conference was spiritually enriching on a personal level.” Certainly, school leaders can’t give what they don’t have, and so it was an opportunity to renew and refresh! She continues, “I have benefited as well from the follow up to the Summit, and look forward to participating remotely in the Founders Forum this winter.”
Within the Diocese of Pittsburgh, there has been a reorganization and regionalization of the Catholic elementary and high schools due to declining enrollment. In many ways, the success and growth of Aquinas Academy is due to the vision of the founding families who had the foresight to operate a school independent of the parishes, which have undergone so much change in the last twenty-five years. With sights steadily set on forming Catholic leaders through strong academics and faithful formation of students (and with a faculty who is dedicated to the mission in order to provide those key elements), Aquinas has become a model, locally, for the potential success of independent Catholic schools in the classical tradition. Much like the other DIA schools, it is a matter of taking seriously the gospel message to go out to all the world and tell the good news, and to form the next generation of Catholic leaders.