Back in 2017, the founders of Father Vincent Capodanno High School had little else beyond a bunch of compelling ideas.
They wanted Catholic families in the Sandhills to have an option for educating their children in the traditions of their faith beyond eighth grade at St. John Paul II. They believed that teaching students how to build meaningful relationships and live as servant-leaders is just as important to their future success as anything they might learn in English or chemistry.
They also had the nonprofit-development expertise of co-founder Mike Erwin, and as military veterans they shared the ability to think outside the box to see a plan through to fruition.
But that was about it. Five years ago, there was no roster of teachers eager to sign on, no big-time donor or blessing from the Diocese of Raleigh to start a school.
So they started small. Erwin’s wife Genevieve, co-founder Frances Klotz and others volunteered to teach the subjects they knew. And they taught them to four students in a spare room of the St. Anthony of Padua parish office.
Teaching was happening. Learning took place. Word spread. More families bought in.
The school grew to four classrooms in a leased building on U.S. 1 in Vass, where it moved in 2018. The board hired its first full-time teacher that year, and a principal in 2019.
Erwin said that Capodanno nearly doubled its enrollment to 34 at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. The school’s small size allowed it to resume in-person full-time learning in May 2020.
“A lot of parents, Catholic and not, saw the small-school environment and that in-person was so important,” said Erwin. “COVID was the impetus but now it’s like we’ve turned the corner in a lot of people’s eyes. Sports, getting kids into college, and people are seeing that our model works.”
Father Capodanno graduated its first class of two seniors in 2021. Its class of 2022 included students bound for The Citadel, Appalachian State University, and one senior with an Army ROTC scholarship to Virginia Tech.
Now the school is poised to take the next giant leap in development with plans to build a school a stone’s throw from Vass’ town limits. Earlier this summer, the board bought an 18-acre cornfield at the corner of N.C. 690 and White Rock Road from Lewin Blue.
Fundraising covered the $414,000 purchase price. That, in turn, has helped secure a loan to build a 10,000-square-foot school building.
The purchase is the culmination of a two-year search and came after a few failed leads. The location along one of the main commuter routes to Fort Bragg puts the school in an ideal position to be noticed by its target audience.
Erwin estimates that 85 percent of Father Capodanno’s students come from military families. The military is also providing a pipeline for its teachers. Capodanno now has a staff of five full-time teachers, plus about eight who work part-time.
No degree in education is required to teach at Capodanno, which is not accredited. That gives the school the option of hiring recently retired veterans who bring demonstrated leadership skills to their classrooms.
“We’re tapping into highly talented people who just are not people who want to go to work 40 hours a week,” Erwin said.
“We found in the military community, there’s a lot of Special Forces folks who have a full retirement and they have a desire to serve. They need, frankly, an ongoing sense of purpose in their life. So many veterans and so many Special Forces folks dedicate their whole life to service and helping other people out, so in many ways we give them an opportunity to keep doing that and to also remain intellectually engaged.”
Erwin, an Army reservist who served for more than a decade on active duty, established Team Red, White and Blue to help veterans build healthy, fulfilling lives outside of the military. He also drew on his master’s degree in positive psychology to develop The Positivity Project, a character training program now used in hundreds of schools nationwide.
He’s currently board chair for Father Capodanno High and teaches the school’s leadership component, which entirely supplants classroom learning each Wednesday, on his West End farm.
That’s part of what the school calls its “SChOLAR” model: emphasizing service, character, order, leadership, academics and resilience.
Students spend Wednesdays testing their own limits and learning to trust their classmates on an obstacle course. Intersessions during the school year are devoted to service projects and wilderness hikes.
“In a world where automation continues to bear down on lots of industries and lots of professions, we want to continue investing in human skills,” Erwin said.
The school is named for Vincent Capodanno, a Maryknoll priest from New York who served as a Navy chaplain. Known as the “Grunt Padre,” Capodanno was killed at the age of 38 while dispensing Last Rites to dying Marines on a battlefield in South Vietnam.
Work on designing the building is just getting started. The first phase will probably include around 12 classrooms and potentially a small chapel. The school aims to open the doors of its new campus no later than summer 2024.
But that won’t change what the school is or what it strives to be. Father Capodanno is committed to the “microschool” concept with a target size of 160 to 200 students.
“We’re committed to it remaining small. We have the luxury of saying that,” said Erwin.
“Part of it is the nature of our model. We don’t want to have to turn kids away but our vision would be to create a new Capodanno.”
That model means that sports teams — Capodanno has volleyball, basketball, football and track — and other activities combine students from ninth grade up through 12th. No one is a stranger to anyone else and struggling students can’t shrink into the background.
Once the school gets to its target size, its vision would be to establish another satellite campus in Lee or Hoke County, depending on its population and where those students are coming from.
“Can it become essentially a charter network of schools that remain small? You need people to step up and lead them, and you’ve got to fund them. But, as we have proved, if there’s a will there’s a way,” said Erwin.
“We have put a lot of faith in God from the very beginning of all this and he hasn’t let us down. I do believe that people who have faith and the work ethic to match it can do amazing things over a sustained period of time.”