Father Vincent Capodanno Field

Maryknoll Father Vincent R. Capodanno, a Navy chaplain who was killed while serving with the Marines in Vietnam, is pictured in an undated photo.

The effort behind Southern Pines’ newest private school might be grassroots, but it has the power to make things happen quickly.

Class is already in session at Father Vincent Capodanno High School — an idea that first came about earlier this year when a group of parents decided to sow the seeds of Catholic education beyond middle school.

The closest of North Carolina’s five Catholic high schools is Raleigh’s Cardinal Gibbons, a lengthy daily commute from southern Moore County. St. John Paul II Catholic School outside of Southern Pines ends with eighth grade, as do St. Patrick and St. Ann in Fayetteville. Between the three of them, more than 500 students in the Sandhills currently attend Catholic schools.

“Back in January we came together and said can you do this, what does it take, how do you create a school?” said Mike Erwin, a Pinehurst resident, father of four, and chair of Capodanno High School’s board of directors.

Capodanno High School started this week with four ninth grade students in a classroom on the second floor of St. Anthony of Padua’s parish office. The school is still in the process of applying for nonprofit status and being recognized as a Catholic school by the Diocese of Raleigh, which covers eastern North Carolina. The school’s organizers have started lining up private donations once those hurdles are cleared.

Like the other parents behind Capodanno High School, Erwin has a military background. Retired from active duty, he is an officer in the Army Reserve and teaches at West Point during the summers.

Erwin has founded nonprofits before, including Team Red, White and Blue, which helps wounded veterans create a support network to reintegrate into civilian life. That organization now has chapters in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

The school’s name pays tribute to a Catholic priest from Staten Island, N.Y. who was killed in action while dispensing Last Rites to dying Marines on a South Vietnamese battlefield.

Capodanno spent nine years at the Maryknoll seminary training to become a foreign missionary. He then served in Taiwan and Hong Kong for several years before becoming a Navy chaplain. After his death in 1967, Capodanno was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, Purple Heart, Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry with Silver Star, and the Navy Bronze Cross.

Capodanno’s story, Erwin said, exemplifies the school’s emphasis on character, leadership and service and is fitting for a school that may draw many of its students from the military community. Preparation for college will be its academic focus, with a curriculum “grounded in the Catholic faith.”

“We’re going to be preparing kids for college but we really don’t want them to lose that love of learning: reading books, listening to podcasts, watching TED Talks and all those kinds of things that exist out there that’s not about getting a certain percentile,” Erwin said. “Not everyone’s going to be a great student, but you can hopefully as much as possible not let them lose their love of learning.”

Frances Klotz, the school’s administrator, also has children at St. John Paul and has a background as a military nurse. She hopes to replicate the K-8 school’s environment to strengthen older students’ faith. Classes include theology and the history of Christian civilization.

“We’re not just trying to rush them through high school; we are trying to develop their souls as well before we send them off into the world,” Klotz said.

For its first year at least, the school will rely on part-time teachers leading classes relevant to their personal backgrounds. Its curriculum includes English, Biology, PE, personal finance, geometry and woodworking — students will start off combining the last two to build furniture for their classroom.

But Erwin plans for the school to attract students from throughout the region and outgrow the space at St. Anthony’s before long.

“We sense a lot of enthusiasm behind this idea,” he said.

Capodanno High will incorporate the Positivity Project, another of Erwin’s organizations that helps students develop self-confidence and strengthen their relationships with other people.

The school’s first day in session on Monday was a team-building excursion at the National Athletic Village. Part of the school’s service element will involve students helping younger children with disabilities at the Prancing Horse Center for Therapeutic Horsemanship.

“We know that when you take your focus off of yourself and you put it on helping other people, it actually helps you,” said Erwin.

“It’s really helping students to understand who they are. There’s so much noise in the world today, there’s so much stuff coming at people — especially kids who don’t have the intellectual and emotional maturity to say ‘okay that’s noise.’”

For information about Father Vincent Capodanno High School, visit capodannohigh.com or call (910) 824-2674. Tuition for the 2017-2018 year is $6,250. The school is open to students of all faiths.

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