Carpooling craze at Saint John Paul the Great

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"As a parent, you have a lot of aspirations for your child. Becoming a commuter is not one of them," said Rich Cooper, an Alexandria resident and father of a student at Saint John Paul the Great Catholic High School in Dumfries.

The Coopers are one of many Saint John Paul the Great families who travel from afar to attend the school. To get there, they rely on one another through a vast carpooling network.

"All people in this area are held hostage to traffic in one way or another," said Jen Cole, director of enrollment management and communications at Saint John Paul the Great. "It's the biggest obstacle we hear from prospective parents."

The school tries to make transportation easier by providing limited busing and by connecting carpool-minded parents to one another. "We try to help them understand (that) we're not as far as you think (and) we're all in it together," said Cole.

Blessed beginnings

On the first day of school at the new high school in 2008, Margi Loesel and her daughter sat in the parking lot of Holy Trinity Church in Gainesville waiting for the bus. It was a dark morning and they had no idea if the other people in the lot were fellow Saint John Paul the Great families, or parishioners on their way to morning Mass.

But they wanted to receive a blessing from the priest, and so they hopped out of the car and began walking to the church. Soon, others families peeked out of their cars to see where they were headed. In the end, several students received a blessing before heading off to the new school.

Loesel and the other families got to know each other well in the years that followed. Eventually, the families from their area formed a Facebook group called the "Western Wolves," after the school's mascot. "It's how we do everything from swapping books and uniforms to working out carpooling," said Loesel.

Because there's no late bus, carpools are crucial for families with children who participate in sports and other after-school activities. In many groups, carpool is worked out between several families, not just two or three. "Six seats might represent six different families, which is kind of nutty," said Loesel.

Making it work

Loesel's sister, Maureen Long, lives in Springfield and also sends her children to Saint John Paul the Great. A month before this school year, Long set out lemonade, sugar cookies and a vegetable platter, and invited nearby parents to a carpooling soiree. All attendees put their information in an Excel spreadsheet. They filled a map with push-pins to represent the houses of each family.

Over the years, the Longs made all sorts of arrangements to get where they needed to go. "We've taken the bus. One year, my son drove. … We've had a swim team carpool meet at St. Bernadette (Church in Springfield), carpools that have dropped off at Dairy Queen … there's a carpool that meets at Starbucks."

In Alexandria, Cooper relies on a carpooling network coordinated by parent David Florenzo. "In his next life, he could be an air traffic controller," said Cooper of Florenzo's technique.

Before each weekend, every parent in the group will email Florenzo with their child's schedule and their availability to drive. Over the weekend, Florenzo will put the pieces together and email the final schedule.

Because of the carpool, parents usually only have to make the trip to Dumfries a few times a week. "It's a lot better than 10 trips," said Florenzo.

Fast and fun

Parents have come up with creative ways to make the ride go more quickly. The Alexandria carpool encourages all parents to download the WAZE app to avoid traffic. Long would first pick up her younger children from St. Bernadette School, and then with the extra passengers, use the HOV lane on Interstate 95 to make it Dumfries in record time. Having a car with a large seating capacity doesn't hurt, either. "I have a 15-passenger; everyone wants me in their carpool," said Loesel.

The ride to and from school is a chance to form friendships between students who might have little in common besides their zip code. But the majority of chit-chat happens in the afternoon, said Cooper.

"Obviously in the morning, your car has as much communication as a morgue van. The kids are out napping," he said. On the way home, "all the kids talk about their day and their activities. As a parent, it's great way of learning what's happening at the school," he said.

The long car rides, the added mileage and the hours spent strategizing are worth the effort because the students love the school, said Cooper. "My daughter made it work. I give her all the credit (for being an) early morning road warrior," he said.

"The hardest thing is just deciding to go," said Florenzo. "Once you decide, nobody has any regrets."

Di Mauro can be reached at zdimauro@catholicherald.com or on Twitter @zoeydimauro.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016