Joseph Staniunas, Special to The Catholic Virginian

A month after classes started, students from St. John Neumann Academy, Blacksburg, gathered outside on a sunny morning for the formal dedication of their new building.

Director Julia Wharton wore her signature dress in school colors: dark blue and white — “Just something I picked up in Richmond,” she said.

Julia Wharton, center, director of Neumann Academy, talks to students and parents at the school’s open house just before the start of school on Monday, Sept. 26.

She thanked the workers and teachers, families and investors who had made that day possible. And with some of those folks at her side, she snipped the traditional ribbon.

“Welcome to your new home, Neumann Knights,” she said, tears of joy in her eyes.

She embraced her husband, Richard, who’s also the head of the SJNA board, and then told the students to come inside for Mass.

The Whartons and other families are the main reasons Catholic education survived the closing of the area’s only parochial school, St. Mary Catholic School, 14 years ago. With commitment and foresight, they established Neumann Academy seven weeks after St. Mary’s closed.

Now, with a new $4 million campus, the academy has room to grow. The complex includes a 20,000-square foot building with a chapel, offices and classrooms surrounding a central multi-purpose room. The site has a playground and an athletic field.

As of the formal opening, Sept. 26, enrollment in grades pre-K through eight is 102, with 23 new families.

“I met some new people and today was really fun because we got lockers,” said sixth-grader Isabella Lopez on the first day in the new school.

“I love the new school,” agreed classmate Lily Wallace. “It’s so much bigger than the other one.”

How the school grew

As she prepared her new classroom one day, lead teacher Jenny Mishoe recalled SJNA’s first day, just a few weeks after the area’s only Catholic school had closed. Their home was the old Blacksburg Middle School, since torn down, in a library with orange carpet, thin partitions and 17 students in grades K-5. No homerooms and lots of combined classes, but plenty of donated materials.

Lead teacher Jenny Mishoe, left, looks on as students enjoy free ice cream on the first day of class in the new Neumann Academy building.

“Who would have ever thought it would go from 17 to over a hundred in 14 years, but there was never a doubt,” Mishoe said. “It didn’t matter; the building was what it was, but it was inside that made it grow.”

Now inside her spacious classroom with new materials on the first day of school, she could gather her 13 second-graders at her desk, deal with any initial jitters, and pray.

“We’re a Catholic school,” she said. “We have to thank God for getting us to school safely, for this wonderful place where we can learn and grow.”

Hands folded, with thumbs crossed and fingers pointing straight up, her students recited the Our Father.

‘Fantastic journey’

In a display case in the lobby is a photo of the original Neumann Knights. One of them is Julia Duetsch, now 20 years old and attending Virginia Tech. At the open house for the new building, her mom, Jean, showed the photo to two more family members who are attending the school this year — seventh-grader Sarah and fourth-grader Kristen. The Duetsch family is one of 22 with more than one child enrolled.

“So to see the school grow to this beautiful building and all of these wonderful teachers and the community that it’s become has been a fantastic journey,” Jean Duetsch said. “Part of it is that community: faith-based, parents and teachers all working toward the goal of not just getting kids educated, but helping them to know and love God.”

Adrian Aron has a son going into the third grade. The Arons aren’t Catholic, but they thought this was the best place for their boy.

“I thought this is the best way for him to stay in line, grow up and learn what’s good and what’s bad,” he said.

SJNA aims to double enrollment during the next 10 years. Richard Wharton believes the expected growth of Virginia Tech will help make that possible. But adding secondary education — college prep classes, athletics, proms — is not in the plan right now.

People, faith made it happen

“Once the growth supports it, we can talk seriously about it,” he said. “We wouldn’t even be in this position without great faculty and staff and people that support the school financially, the investors that put up the money to get this built and had faith that we could do this.”

For him, the opening of the new building confirms a decision made years ago.

When the company he was working for was sold, he thought he might have to move. With his experience in information technology he could have easily landed a well-paying job in a place such as northern Virginia. But he and his family stayed, and the new owner employed him.

“If I was focused on career, we probably would have moved because there’s not a lot of opportunity around here for growth,” he said. “But moving was not an option. This is our life’s work…and this is where we need to be.”

It’s the work, too, of so many other families in southwest Virginia devoted to Catholic education.