Diocese to pursue relocation of Paul VI High School

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The Arlington Diocese announced Dec. 19 its decision to pursue a possible relocation for Paul VI Catholic High School, which currently is located in Fairfax City. The diocese is determining the feasibility of a new facility at South Riding in eastern Loudoun County, but it first must assess the logistical, legal and financial challenges of the proposed relocation that would not be expected until 2020.

According to a statement from the diocesan Office of Communications, the new campus would be built on property owned by the diocese and would include space for academic and faith enrichment programs, learning centers, extracurricular activities and athletics. The campus would replace Paul VI's current location on Fairfax Boulevard, where the school was first established in 1983 under Bishop Thomas J. Welsh.

The current school building dates back to 1935, when it was Fairfax High School. Later, the building was used for 10 years by George Mason University for its college of professional studies, college of general studies and education department.

The original principal of Paul VI was Oblate of St. Francis de Sales Father Donald J. Heet and enrollment was 350 students. The Oblates ended their 17-year administration of the school in 2000. Three years later, the school opened a two-floor, $6.5 million student activity center.

The diocesan decision to pursue relocation resulted from an assessment of the long-term needs of the school, which was aimed at strengthening Catholic education both for Paul VI students and at all diocesan high schools.

Currently, school enrollment is near capacity at 1,000 students. According to the diocesan statement, campus facilities are utilized fully and site expansion is not feasible at the current location. A new campus would be better equipped to accommodate future educational programs. In the event of a possible move, the incoming 2014-15 freshman class would be guaranteed four years of matriculation at the existing Fairfax facility.

"Paul VI High School is an outstanding Catholic high school with a national reputation for academics," said Sister Bernadette McManigal, diocesan superintendent of schools. "The school is attracting more students, and PVI's academic programs are expanding. After looking at all the options available for Paul VI Catholic High School, we have decided to pursue relocating to Loudoun County. A new PVI campus would be a larger, state-of-the-art school facility that would further strengthen its heritage as a leading Catholic high school."

"The Diocese of Arlington is committed to Catholic education, and I am proud of the record of achievement of PVI and all our schools and students," said Arlington Bishop Paul S. Loverde. "We are working to best ensure the continued excellence and success of Paul VI High School in a facility that is requisite to its needs and growth. The pursuit of a new campus for PVI in Loudoun County will serve to propel its tradition of delivering Catholic education at the highest level of excellence for generations to come."

School principal Virginia Colwell said the diocesan decision to pursue relocation was "thrilling news for PVI."

"I am grateful to the diocese for all it does to ensure the future of our students," she said. "This process will entail long-range planning from many constituents to provide a facility where PVI can continue with its motto to grow in grace and wisdom. I look forward to working with the diocese during this exciting time."

Reaction from the local community varied, with Fairfax Mayor R. Scott Silverthorne expressing his disappointment to The Washington Post.

"As mayor, I'm clearly disappointed in the decision," he said. "We worked hard to convince them to stay."

Meanwhile, Loudoun County Supervisor Matthew F. Letourneau praised the news in a Dec. 19 statement.

"As a product of a Catholic high school myself, I am a strong believer in Catholic education," he said. "Paul VI would provide Loudoun residents with a high-quality educational opportunity and would be a valuable addition to our community. The construction of Paul VI could also bring some relief to Loudoun's high schools, which face continued strains due to a growing student population."

Members of the school community, including alumni, parents and former faculty members, had mixed feelings about the decision.

Margie Carson, the mother of two Paul VI graduates, taught journalism at the school for nine years and served as director of communications for six years.

"I clearly love the school and have been so thrilled to see it grow and change from a building that was practically falling down to a beautiful facility with a gymnasium we never dreamt to see," she said. "I think the school has built a base of support of people like me who have worked hard to make it what it is. To think of leaving that is devastating. It will never feel like Paul VI if it's moved out to Loudoun County."

Kari Mitchum, a member of the class of 1992 and mother of two, said she is "not too keen on the move."

"I understand the need for a Catholic high school in Loudoun County, but I don't think that means moving PVI," she said.

Though the new location would allow for a more updated school building, Mitchum believes the school will lack the history and personality of its current location.

"My (child who would graduate in 2024) has gone with me to the PVI homecoming game the last two years and has asked if he could go there, looking at the building with its impressive brick and very high school (-like) exterior," she said. "I'm sad to say that now I'll answer, 'Nope, you won't be going to PVI' and we should most likely start going to the West Springfield homecoming to visit with neighbors instead of Mommy's old friends and teachers."

Arif Fazel, a member of the class of 2003, agreed that it would be a shame to see the old school building go, but said he could understand the rationale behind the decision.

"If it meant something bigger and better for future students then it makes sense to relocate," he said. "It is in a tight area where further expansion seems limited."

Bahr can be reached on Twitter @KBahrACH.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2013