Ray Township — With a new principal, new sports opportunities and a steadily growing student population, Austin Catholic Academy is picking up steam heading into its third year of operation.
The newest co-ed Catholic high school in the Archdiocese of Detroit, which opened in 2011, will start the new school year with approximately 30 students and several new programs, said Janel M. Coppens, who took over as principal in the spring after two years teaching at the school.
Among the biggest changes this year is the addition of a full spectrum of sports programs open to Austin students through a cooperative agreement with the nearby New Haven Public Schools. The program — the first of its kind in the state between a public and a private school — allows Austin students to try out for New Haven sports teams if the budding Ray Township school can’t field its own team in a given sport.
“Sports are a big draw when students are looking at where to go to school,” Coppens said. “To be competitive, not only academically, we have to offer the sports and the clubs that students really want to make that well-rounded education that they so need.”
That’s not to say Austin hasn’t been successful fielding its own teams. Coppens said the school is within one student of fielding its own soccer team this year, along with the track and girls volleyball programs it fielded last year.
“We get a lot of cold calls and students coming in to tour, and we’re noticing the trend that students do enjoy those extracurricular activities, and if you don’t offer those, a lot of times it does turn them away,” Coppens said.
In addition to new sports programs, Austin also is seeing growth in other extracurricular and academic areas, including technology, fine arts and electives. Teachers and students will return this fall with new iPads complete with textbooks and apps needed for their courses loaded onto them. The school also hopes to add vocal music with a new student choir, an art class and an instrumental music club in the coming school year. Graphics and media courses are another avenue the school in exploring, Coppens said.
“We have some very talented students in both the media and artistic areas. Our program is definitely liberal arts. We want our students to understand and appreciate all areas of education, not just the cores.”
As the school continues to grow, Coppens said more and more people are becoming aware of what Austin Catholic Academy can offer.
“The name is starting to get out there through athletics and through fundraisers and through our students doing service in the community,” she said. “Our name is getting out there and they’re realizing, ‘Wow, Austin is here; Austin is up and running, and look what the students are doing.’”
Culture of faith
One of the other things students are doing, she said, is building an environment where faith comes first. With daily Mass, prayers before each class and a vibrant faith-building atmosphere — the school even offers a weekly study group on Pope John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body” — one might have thought students were getting enough faith formation. Not so, Coppens said.
She said after a school trip to the Student Augustinian Values Institute in Pennsylvania last spring, students came back inspired for even more Christian unity.
“Through that they wanted to institute afternoon prayer, and they wanted to be the ones leading it,” Coppens said. “So not only do we have now daily Mass and beginning prayer before every class, but our students have instituted themselves an afternoon prayer that they do over the intercom. It’s really great to see that they took that initiative. We do put Christian outreach and our Christian faith first.”
Coppens, who received a master’s degree in educational leadership from Marygrove College and spent six years mentoring and education at-risk youths with the St. Clair County Intervention Academy before coming to Austin, said she was “honored” at being named the school’s new principal. She said the school nickname the students chose, the Crusaders, was appropriate for its direction.
“They named themselves the Crusaders, and they’re correct. They’re paving the way for other students. They’re crusading into unknown territory. Those that started with us as freshmen are paving the way and creating something great for other students in this area,” she said.
“It’s a great time to be an Austin Crusader. There are so many positive changes and so much excitement among the student body and staff that we’re really going to see this program grow in the next couple years, and Austin will be at the tip of everyone’s tongue.”