Austin Catholic celebrates first graduating class

By: Thomas Franz | Macomb Township Chronicle | Published June 3, 2015

RAY TOWNSHIP — When Oscar Aponte began researching high schools to attend, Austin Catholic High School was nowhere near the top of his list.

In fact, it didn’t even make the list, mainly because it didn’t exist yet.

However, the advice of his parish priest convinced him and his family to be a part of Austin’s inaugural class in 2011, and as one of two four-year students in Austin’s first graduating class, he has no regrets on the decision.

“At first, I was against it because there were going to be nine students. It was kind of weird and unexpected, but my mom ultimately made the decision, and it was a good one,” Aponte said.

Several students from that initial group of nine transferred elsewhere, but he and class valedictorian Regina Marogi were joined by a handful of transfer students to make up Austin’s seven-person class of 2015.

Aponte, Marogi, Jacquelyn Eubanks, Stephanie Fletcher, Taelase Leota, Nora Walker and Tara Warner participated in a graduation ceremony on May 27 at St. Clare of Montefalco in Grosse Pointe Park.

“I’m sure I could’ve left any time after the first year, but there was something in the school that I liked,” Aponte said. “The education was great. It really filled me in on faith itself, especially with Father David Brecht. He instilled faith in me, and everything he taught was so captivating. I wanted to stay and learn more.”

Holding graduation at St. Clare of Montefalco connected this inaugural Austin class with the original Austin Prep, which was an all-boys school in Detroit that had its first graduating class in 1956 and closed its doors in 1978. St. Clare of Montefalco was also the home church for the original Austin.

“It was not one of the struggling Catholic schools at the time, so it was a shock when the Augustinians pulled out and closed the school,” Principal Janel Coppens said.

The road to Austin’s Class of 2015 began nearly two decades ago, when discussions began on reopening Austin to serve the northern Macomb County region.

In 2007, there was a groundbreaking event held on a piece of property located at 23 Mile and Card roads. The plans for that campus didn’t come to fruition, as the economic climate of 2008 didn’t warrant further investment into the proposed 100-acre campus, which Austin still owns.

The school was able to arrange an agreement with New Haven Community Schools to lease the building that it currently occupies on 26 Mile just east of North Avenue.

Austin was able to open its doors in 2011, which fulfilled a promise to families that had been with the project since 1999, Coppens said.

“Part of it lost a lot of momentum. There was a lot of media attention and the school didn’t open, so while we’re trying to maintain and build, we also have to go back and continue to market that, ‘Yes, we’re open, and we’re the same promise,’” Coppens said. “It was hard for a lot of the kids. A lot of them didn’t stay after the first couple years because they were looking for the big football games and homecoming and all of that, and it took a really special group of kids to last and to make it.”

Next year’s class is expected to have 14 seniors, while the school’s total population is projected to be near 80 students.

Those students will benefit from the work that Aponte and his classmates put in to create numerous clubs and teams at Austin.

Student government has existed at Austin since its inception, while a forensics team, book club, yearbook committee and other groups followed.

“This year, we put a lot of attention and focus on our arts. We’ve attracted a lot of art students in all areas of the fine arts,” Coppens said. “The forensics team has been successful. All of them qualified for states last year. This year, a whole different group tried it, and TJ Leota was a state champion in poetry interpretation.”

In sports, if Austin doesn’t have enough athletes to field a team of its own in a certain sport, those kids participate for New Haven High School through a co-op agreement.

Austin had several runners earn medals at this spring’s Catholic League CD divisional championship meet, while it will have a varsity soccer team for the first time this fall.

“Soccer, that’s their love here. Every kid, every day at lunch, it wouldn’t be uncommon to drive by here and see those kids outside playing soccer,” Coppens said.

For school events, Austin has held homecoming for two years, and Austin held its first prom this spring.

While Austin is beginning to form its own identity, Coppens said it is doing so with the same foundation as the original Austin.

The fact that it’s a co-ed school is one big difference, along with smaller details like the school’s colors and mascot. However, the new Austin aspires to form an educational environment rooted in truth, unity and love, the three principles of the original school.

“We understand that we’re not the exact same school; we’ll never be the exact same school, nor do we want to. You have your memories, you have your school, but we do share in the same tradition and formation that they did in the Augustinian values,” Coppens said.

Those differences in the new school have been met with mixed reactions from alumni, but they sit fine with Alan Harvard, a graduate of Austin’s 1956 class and a commencement speaker at the 2015 graduation. Harvard was a classmate of Father Brecht, who was instrumental in reopening the school.

Harvard said that he has seen the world become a much more sophisticated and accepting place since he was in high school, but he hopes that Austin’s students realize the purpose of attending a preparatory school.

“In my opinion, the preparatory part gives you an opportunity to socialize. I think the preparatory process here has given them the fortitude to do that. It also gives you the one thing that I wish I had done better, which is to teach you how to study,” Harvard said. “That’s a huge deal, because you can’t imagine the consequences of not learning that process.”

Looking ahead, Coppens shared a big announcement for the future of Austin at a benefactor   event held prior to graduation.

“We’re going to look at building, and the board has committed to pursuing moving to the 23 Mile campus,” Coppens said. “The board is relooking at the contractors and architects to start that process again. As far as enrollment, we’re in a position that we can start looking at that again.”