The First 25
Latest edition of IRISH magazine commemorates 25 years of Notre Dame Preparatory School and Marist Academy.
The Fall 2019 edition of IRISH magazine was published by Notre Dame Preparatory School and Marist Academy and mailed last month to more than 10,000 alumni and other members of the school community. Now it is available to read online here.
As this issue marks the milestone of Notre Dame's first 25 years as a Catholic Marist institution in Pontiac, the school's advancement department decided to highlight a number of unique perspectives and recollections from alumni, faculty and other friends about what former Detroit Archbishop Adam Maida once called his "miracle school."
The article includes some fascinating recollections of the early days of Pontiac Notre Dame as well as a timeline of major events and developments during the school's 25 years. An online version of the cover story is available below.
In addition, the anniversary issue, which also introduces a new design and layout for the magazine, includes an interview with Br. Louis Plourde, s.m., Fr. Joe Hindelang, s.m., and Fr. Jim Strasz, s.m., who collectively reminisce on those first 25 years and ponder the next 25.
The fall issue also features a wonderful treatise by school founder Fr. Leon Olszamowski, s.m., who riffs on what the school has meant for thousands of students since it took over the campus reins from Oakland Catholic High School in 1994.
Plus, the 2019-2019 Honor Roll of Donors to the Notre Dame Fund and much more news and information about Notre Dame, its alumni, students, faculty and staff.
In an article published Feb. 5, 1993, in The Michigan Catholic, then-Archbishop Adam Maida announced that he had invited the Society of Mary (Marist Fathers and Brothers) to oversee the operation of Oakland Catholic High School in Pontiac, beginning in the fall of 1994.
The Society of Mary agreed to establish Notre Dame Preparatory School at the request of Maida, who made the offer to Fr. Joseph Hindelang, s.m., Provincial Superior of the Marists, based primarily on the excellent reputation enjoyed by the Marists at Harper Woods Notre Dame, which closed in 2005.
The site on Giddings Road in northern Oakland County was built originally as Pontiac Catholic Central High School in 1968, when two Pontiac area schools, St. Michael and St. Frederick, merged. In 1988, the school was rebranded as Oakland Catholic High School.
“The Marists bring their great dedication and proven history at Notre Dame High School in Harper Woods, and I know the people in Oakland County are very excited about this,” Maida said at the time. “I look forward to working with the Marists to make it the premier high school in the archdiocese.”
On Aug. 28, 1994, Notre Dame Preparatory School began its first year with a meeting of teachers, administrators and staff around four small tables in the library of the former Oakland Catholic building. The meeting included only 18 staff members and consisted of veteran teachers from three of Notre Dame’s heritage schools: Harper Woods Notre Dame, Pontiac Catholic High School and Oakland Catholic High School.
Drawing on a mission conceived by Society of Mary founder Fr. Jean-Claude Colin in 1829 and the experience of graduating from and later teaching at Notre Dame High School, Marist Fathers Leon Olszamowski, Jim Strasz and Joe Hindelang formulated a vision: Notre Dame Preparatory School would be “the school of choice in Oakland County.”
The following day, on Aug. 29, the faculty and staff welcomed 183 students to a new school in the refurbished Oakland Catholic building. It was on that day that students heard for the first time the defining phrase in the mission of the new school: “With God, we form Christian people, upright citizens and academic scholars.”
One of those 18 faculty and staff members was Kirby Smith*, who became the art teacher at the newly opened school.
“I do recall hearing about our mission and that I knew immediately that NDP was the place for me,” said Smith, who also taught art at Cranbrook and Harper Woods Notre Dame. “I also remember that the art room I was given was pretty small. I scouted the school and found an unlikely vacant home economics room that would work well.
“Fr. Leon was very helpful. He always supported the arts, but he had to call downtown to the Archdiocese for approval. I had the room until a new wing was built with two art rooms that I designed. The larger room with lots of storage, included four sinks, a kiln room and a private office with even more storage. I then built and bought display items and had two showings every year. It truly was an exciting time for both me and the students.”
A longtime Notre Dame teacher who came up to Pontiac when the Harper Woods school closed was Ken Parent. He taught on the NDPMA campus for three years, first as a physical education teacher along with health classes and some intramurals. He then became the alumni director part-time for two years before he finally retired in 2008.
“I felt very welcome because of some of the old familiar faces from NDHS who were already there,” he said. “And it didn't take long to feel at home with the other new faces. Eventually, I felt comfortable once I got to know most of the students by name.”
High school grows and the middle school takes root
Twenty-two seniors crossed the stage as Notre Dame’s first graduating class in the spring of 1995.
The original plan for the new school included a middle school, which began with soon-to-be principal Sandra Favrow and not much more than a desk, a pad of paper and a pen. In August of 1996, Notre Dame opened its doors to 162 students in grades six, seven and eight, including the younger siblings of 39 Notre Dame Prep students who were enrolled in the high school at the time.
Favrow, who retired in 2010, said in her 40 years as a high school teacher and administrator, no other position could compare to her 15 years at Notre Dame.
“Excellent teachers, lifelong friendships, bright, lively students, what more could you ask for?” she said. “For me, being part of opening a Catholic and Marist middle school was the opportunity of a lifetime. I truly love NDPMA. As Fr. Leon always reminded all of us, to be a successful school, we must follow the mission in becoming good Christian people, upright citizens and academic scholars. I thank God that Fr. Leon and the Marists offered me the position in 1995 so that I could enjoy being a part of this exceptional educational institution.”
Notre Dame’s middle school, along with Holy Family Regional School, St. Joseph School, St. Benedict School and St. Lawrence School, continued to provide the core group of students necessary to make Notre Dame Prep thrive as a high school.
In four short years after opening its doors, Notre Dame was proclaimed to be a “miracle school” by Archbishop Maida.
The Class of 1998 was the first to spend a full four years at NDP and the remarkable success of the still-young school came through clearly in the accomplishments of that class. The graduation of those 88 students brought NDP’s first acceptances to the University of Notre Dame, Northwestern University and Boston College, among other elite schools.
The class also was NDP’s first to eclipse $1 million in college scholarships. In addition, the Class of 1998 helped usher in the now-thriving theatre and band programs, launched a first-class service project by spending nearly 400 hours restoring a home in the city of Pontiac, and won the school’s first regional championships in athletics. The class also included NDP’s first National Merit Scholarship finalist and an All-State First Team selection in athletics.
Dr. Leah (Kohler) Spring NDP’98 is a board-certified dermatologist as well as a commander in the U.S. Navy. She recalled her time at NDP fondly.
“My favorite NDP memories included Slurpee Thursdays in AP Biology and Mr. [Gregory] Simon getting so excited about government class that he was almost leaping around the room,” she said. “Also, anything in Mrs. Bembas's classes and how Brother Louis knew and enthusiastically greeted every student in our class — even at our 20-year reunion!”
New lower school
The school’s story took another unexpected turn in 2003 when, in an era when closing and consolidating Catholic schools was commonplace, Notre Dame ventured out and opened an elementary school, which took its form first in a location with an already established history of Catholic education.
Notre Dame Marist Academy's lower school opened on the campus of St. Benedict School and Parish in Waterford. St. Benedict, which originally was a strong feeder school to Pontiac Catholic, Oakland Catholic and Notre Dame Prep, began to struggle in the early 2000s and eventually closed.
The Marists agreed to open the school and, throughout the following summer, volunteers and staff from Notre Dame turned out to help prepare the building. On Sept. 2, 2003, the Marists, then-middle school principal Favrow and her staff welcomed 110 new students into the Notre Dame family.
Before long, Notre Dame's lower school students began to outperform their peers on the IOWA Test of Basic Skills, but more importantly, they fully embraced the mission of being “good Christian people and upright citizens” in an elementary learning environment that challenged students in academics, art, athletics, service and prayer.
Diana Atkins, who eventually took over from Favrow as principal of the lower school in 2005, said that when she first hired in to teach middle school English and geometry at Notre Dame, she knew she had found a home.
“During my interview with Sandy, I knew I wanted to be a part of the amazing program Notre Dame offered its students,” she said. “The mission resonated with my own values, and I wanted to share my talents with the students here.”
In 2013, Notre Dame’s lower school, which includes students in pre-kindergarten through fifth grade, moved from Waterford to a brand new facility in Pontiac across the street from the high school and middle school.
“I was ecstatic when the decision was made to move the lower school to Giddings Road,” Atkins said. “The location provides convenient access for parents who have children in different grades and it also provides opportunities for faculty across our three schools to collaborate more easily. Lastly, older students serve as tutors for the younger students in the lower school. All of these things aid in creating a strong community and positive experience for students, parents and faculty.”
Accolades pile up
The early success of Notre Dame provided a foundation for the tremendous growth to follow. The school thrived because the Marist Fathers and Brothers, the school’s faculty and staff, and families in the community continued to look for opportunities to grow.
In fact, one of the early members of the parental community ultimately became a faculty member. Donna Kotzan, who retired as vice principal of Notre Dame Prep in 2013, said she was so impressed with the school as a parent, that she decided to join the faculty when a math position opened up.
“When my oldest daughter was high school age, we were pleased to see that Notre Dame became a presence in Pontiac,” Kotzan said. “My husband was a 1970 graduate of Harper Woods Notre Dame and I went to Regina High School. After attending an open house at NDP, we decided to enroll our daughter in the first class. We saw the same values we saw in our high school days in the educational hands of familiar faces.”
Kotzan said those familiar faces included a couple of Marist priests and a brother. “I was so impressed by Fr. Leon's vision and leadership,” she said. “I had no doubt that NDP was going to be a school of choice. And Fr. Joe's mentoring of students as he enforced the rules of the school truly was a model for the faculty. He always treated students with dignity but had expectations of appropriate behavior. He also mentored me in the Marist way by his example. Brother Louis was the kindest, most caring person — again, an example of living a life in the way of Mary.”
In the time since the school’s founding, Notre Dame has developed one of the most respected arts programs in the area; was recognized as a Top 50 Catholic School by the Catholic School Honor Roll four times; received the prestigious Exemplary Athletic Program Award by the Michigan High School Athletic Association; and became the first Catholic school in the nation to offer all three levels of the International Baccalaureate curriculum.
Dave Osiecki, who has been teaching social studies at NDP since 1997, said the school's accolades are well-deserved.
“Besides the 'brick-and-mortar' changes over the years, there also have been many internal changes made for the benefit of our students,” he said. “A greatly expanded AP program; the implementation of the International Baccalaureate program at all three levels; greater opportunities and resources set aside for teacher training and education; a larger office and greater resources for student counseling; more variety of teacher in-service continuing education; expanded sports opportunities for students; and significant educational technology support and assistance for both teachers and students alike.”
But Osiecki says it's something else entirely — not facilities and not academics — that makes Notre Dame so special.
“I think it's the way the ‘Marist Way’ most definitely permeates everything and everybody at the school,” he said. “We are challenged to think, judge and act as Mary at all times. I think that this way of doing things is manifested in the respect, humility and decency that are part of all interactions at Notre Dame. It might not be an obvious or aggressive 'hit you over the head' type of philosophy or charism, but I think it's there nonetheless.
“I have helped with ninth-grade admissions interviews for many years and have heard many times from families that when their eighth-grader had a shadow day at NDP, they got in the car and immediately said they've made their decision and wanted to go to NDP,” Osiecki added. “Was it anything the student heard in class that day that impressed them so much? I doubt it. It was probably a blur. But I really think they felt the sense of community and Marist way of doing things that is such a big part of our everyday school life.”
We're number one!
In 2016, Notre Dame Preparatory School was named the top Catholic school in the state of Michigan for 2016, according to Niche, a national organization that annually ranks colleges and K-12 schools across the country. Niche.com also rated Notre Dame the 7th best private high school, religious or non-religious, in the state. Cranbrook and Country Day were ranked one and two, respectively, on the list of all private schools.
According to Niche, the Best Catholic High Schools ranking provides a comprehensive assessment of the overall experience at a Catholic high school. This grade takes into account key factors such as the strength of academics, school culture and diversity, as well as student and parent reviews, in an attempt to measure the overall excellence of the school.
In August of this year, Niche.com again ranked NDP as the top Catholic high school in the state, which means that four out of the last five years, the school earned the top spot.
STEM gets boost with new wing
In August of 2018, school officials, students, parents and faculty and staff celebrated the opening of the school's new new science, art and technology wing that was made possible by the most successful capital campaign in the school's history. The new facility, now called the “Timothy J. Easterwood Science, Art and Technology Wing,” has been added to the existing shared middle school and upper school wings and includes science laboratories, collaborative-learning classrooms, a robotics lab, a state-of-the-art greenhouse, and two fine arts studios.
“The Easterwood Wing and Melissa Kozyra Greenhouse and Botany Learning Center are now complete and fully operational,” said Head of School Andy Guest. “We are so grateful to the more than 250 donors who came forward to help make this project a reality.
“We have been a beacon of excellence in Catholic education in Oakland County for nearly a quarter century,” Guest added. “And this addition to our academic campus is giving our students today the opportunity to prepare for the college majors and careers of tomorrow — particularly in the sciences and technology.”
Heritage of excellence
Much like Fr. Colin encouraged a Marist-sponsored education to be “a second creation,” the Notre Dame we cherish today carries on the legacies of its heritage schools. The school was blessed to open its doors because of sacrifices and gifts of countless people. The buildings were built and handed down by families of Waterford’s St. Benedict Parish, Pontiac and Oakland Catholic, and St. Michael and St. Frederick high schools.
Harper Woods Notre Dame lent its good name and a tried and true approach to educating young people. One such staffer with a long history of educating young people at both NDHS and NDP is Norm Kotarski. He is unequivocal about what has led to Notre Dame's continued success.
“The school has thrived because the faculty and staff are very supportive of the kids and so willing to go above and beyond,” he said. “Working with students both inside and outside of the classroom is what students always say about their teachers when describing their school to prospective parents and students. From the very first day, freshmen are acquainted with the Marist philosophy, and returning alumni always talk about how they continue to live that philosophy as Christian persons, upright citizens and academic scholars.”
Another Notre Dame teacher echoed Kotarski's assessment of the school.
Dance a little
“From the very beginning, I've felt like the Marists were very mission-driven,” said John Smith, a social studies teacher who came to Notre Dame Prep in the fall of 2003. “From the first faculty meeting that I attended all of those Augusts ago, it was apparent that the priests were there to develop Christians, citizens and scholars. Also, it’s clear to me the school mission doesn’t just apply to the students, but to the faculty and staff as well. From the yearly faculty and staff retreats to daily prayer and mass, I feel the Marist presence at all times while I'm here on campus.”
Smith also noted that it's not just about prayer and work at the school. “The Marists, going all the way back to Fr. Colin, have stressed that students and staff must also find time to 'dance a little,'” he said. “The teachers, staff and administration here at Notre Dame do a great job making sure that even while the school continues to be a place of outstanding academics, there also are ways to relax and enjoy the experience of being in a loving community.”
Smith also said it is important for the entire community to take a step back once in a while and enjoy being part of something bigger than just education.
“The friends we make in the classroom, on the athletic field, in the band room, in the robotics lab, on the stage or just walking down the hall are emphasized by the Marists just as much, if not more, than anything else in our school.”
Strong future at hand
The Marist Fathers and Brothers continue to infuse the school in Pontiac with a spirit and philosophy of education rooted in a long history of teaching not only in metro Detroit but around the world.
This commitment to excellence has also benefited from a vibrant alumni association that includes more than 10,000 graduates from the Notre Dame family of schools who continue to share their gifts on this campus as teachers, coaches, parents, volunteers and donors. In fact, Notre Dame’s roster of faculty, staff and coaches currently includes 17 alumni.
Notre Dame Preparatory School and Marist Academy has come far in a short 25 years. With a solid foundation rooted in faith and academics, the long-term success of Michigan’s best Catholic school is assured. And the next 25 years promise to be just as exciting.
*Editor’s note: Kirby Smith, a beloved faculty member of the Notre Dame family, passed away on Oct. 7 prior to the publication of this issue of IRISH.
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About Notre Dame Preparatory School and Marist Academy
Notre Dame Preparatory School and Marist Academy is a private, Catholic, independent, coeducational day school located in Oakland County. Notre Dame Preparatory School enrolls students in grades nine through twelve and has been named one of the nation's best 50 Catholic high schools (Acton Institute) four times since 2005. Notre Dame's middle and lower schools enroll students in pre-kindergarten through grade eight. All three school are International Baccalaureate "World Schools." NDPMA is conducted by the Marist Fathers and Brothers and is accredited by the Independent Schools Association of the Central States and the North Central Association Commission on Accreditation and School Improvement. For more on Notre Dame Preparatory School and Marist Academy, visit the school's home page at www.ndpma.org