Quigley Catholic High School has captured the attention of the Catholic High School Honor Roll, an organization that has been honoring high-achieving Catholic schools for the past four years.
For the fourth consecutive year, Quigley has been named to the organization's list of the Top 50 Catholic High Schools -- making it one of only 11 schools in the nation to be chosen every year. The Honor Roll says it mails qualifying information to about 1,300 high schools throughout the country.
Ask the students at Quigley, and they'll say it's the discipline, the high expectations, the family atmosphere and -- most of all -- the teachers.
"Quigley would not be Quigley without our teachers," Amanda Jaber, a senior who was part of a five-student group discussion of the school in Baden.
"They're involved inside and outside the classroom," her classmate, Alli Tipton, said.
"You have respect for them, but they're also like your friends," freshman John Taormina said.
"They say they're going to prepare you for life," freshman Matthew Coyner said. "It's not just the academics, it's also the moral values, the little life lessons they throw in."
School principal Madonna Helbling agreed, "Truly, without a doubt, it's the teachers."
Ask the teachers, though, and they'll tell you it's the discipline, the high expectations, the family atmosphere ... and the students.
"The kids here are wonderful," art teacher Karen O'Brien said. "They're so interested, so eager to learn. It's easy to be excited about teaching."
"We have a great, great group of kids," physics teacher Robert McLane said. "And they pass it on to each other. It's a culture of learning."
Eric Auth, a sophomore from Pine, said he likes the small, close-knit atmosphere at Quigley.
"When I went to eighth-grade orientation, they talked a lot about how Quigley is one big family, and I have really found that to be true," he said. "You know everybody; everybody's a friend."
Eric said the workload was a bit eye-opening in his freshman year -- freshmen are given an article a week to critique, building both critical thinking and writing skills and a knowledge of current events -- but said he's feeling quite comfortable with it this year.
And he said the discipline level contributes to that. The dress code, the lack of horseplay in the halls, the general level of respect help make Quigley what it is: "I think it's good because if everyone's quiet you can learn more," he said.
Eric also said that while a big school like Pine-Richland High School might offer more variety of courses and activities up front, Quigley makes up for it through flexibility.
"One kid wanted to have a bowling team, and they got a bowling team started," he said.
Sarah Hein, a freshman from Cranberry, said Quigley was a natural because her father went there and she grew up hearing about it. And when she went to an orientation session, "the teachers made it seem really fun."
And that close contact with teachers, she said, has been a big positive in her experience at the school as well as the way the kids all know each other.
Sarah thinks the rules on clothing contribute to that.
"I love having a dress code," she said. "You don't have to compare people based on what they wear."
Similarly, she likes the discipline that keeps the classrooms and hallways quiet and serious.
"You get to learn a lot more because everyone's quiet," she said.
"They work you hard, but it will pay off. In the long run, they're going to prepare me for college."
Perhaps another reason for the honor roll selection is Catholic identity, achieved though worship, religion classes and an underlying theme that faith is life, woven into all classes.
"The whole faith thing, that's, like, a big part of our school, but it also becomes a big part of our lives," said Alli, who lives in Moon. "We talk about it, debate it. Even the kids who don't have it" -- some non-Catholics attend the school -- "get to experience it."
Another is community service. Librarian Mitch Yinyanin takes a group of students every Wednesday to help Beaver County Habitat for Humanity build houses.
"When they come back, I don't even recognize them," Dr. Helbling said. "I worry about them, they get so dirty."
The work helps the students meet the requirement of 120 hours of community service each year. On top of that, seniors have to find a nonprofit of their own and give 25 hours of their time to it.
But Quigley may be best known locally for academics -- prep school-level academics, with a syllabus littered with Advanced Placement and College-in-High-School courses, forensics and mock trial teams that get treated like football stars.
The result? The class of 2007 had 33 members. Of those, 33 went to college -- 27 to four-year colleges or universities and six to two-year colleges or technical schools.
And Dr. Helbling estimated that the 33 had an average of nine college credits each already under their belts when they left.
That's partly because the work is hard and expectations are high.
"Academically, it's on you," Amanda, of Center, Beaver County, said. "It's almost like an independent study. "They'll say, 'Read chapters 7-9, and there's a test this day and a paper due this day. You have your schedule; there are no excuses; find time to do it.' "
And it gets more demanding as you get older.
"It's not like I don't have a life," Matthew, of Marion, Beaver County, said during the group discussion, only to have the seniors jump down his throat, letting him know he wouldn't have one for long.
"I already don't have a life," said John, of Center, Beaver County.
But it's also partly because of a highly active guidance office and a heavily involved faculty at the 209-student school.
Each week, Dr. Helbling and guidance counselor Bridget Reilly will sit down with all the teachers who work with each class and talk about the kids in that class.
"The faculty puts out names of kids they're worried about and the guidance counselor meets with those kids," be it about academics, life decisions or other problems.
The guidance office also plays a key role in guiding students to college -- the wall there already has stars for several students from the class of '08 who have been accepted to college for next year.
"You can't just fade into the woodwork here," Dr. Helbling said. "When kids come in from public school, I tell them they're going from the ocean into a fish tank. We know what they're doing every minute they're here."
That means discipline as well as work: Dress codes, tight reins on language and high expectations on other teen struggles. Naturally, that engenders some grumbling -- Amanda said that in her senior year, she still can't understand why she can wear only one bracelet -- but is on some level embraced, too.
"I know this kid from public school and he resents some of the rules," sophomore Justin Gregory, of Hopewell, said. "But he wouldn't go back."
Another strength at Quigley was born of necessity. With such a small group and such an ambitious academic agenda, there is no way to offer every class at once: The school doesn't have enough teachers to teach them all, not enough students to fill them and not enough classrooms to hold them. So advanced classes are scheduled on a rotating basis: college-level chemistry one year and college-level biology the next, and so forth.
Dr. Helbling said the rotation helps to keep the teachers fresh -- "they're not teaching the same thing all the time" -- and it contributes to the sense of family in the school.
"When I was a freshman, I was in a math class with juniors," Amanda said. She sat in a corner with two other freshmen for support and "didn't talk until, like, after Christmas. By the end of the year, though, those juniors were some of our best friends."
It also helps that Quigley is not handling special education, gifted programs, shop or home economics, and that, as a private school, it is not concerned about meeting state regulations -- all of which would be difficult in such a small school.
Finally, Quigley's reputation is somewhat self-perpetuating, according to development director Mike Rubino.
"It's a college-prep school, and parents and students know that coming in," Mr. Rubino said. "We tend to get students who want that kind of atmosphere."
Admissions are open, and tuition is $6,400 a year, thanks to a generous benefactor, but it's not a place for those looking to coast through to graduation.
Amanda, for instance, said she had to lobby her parents hard to let her come; her sisters go to Center Area public schools.
Matthew said he could have gone to public schools or been bused to another Catholic school, but instead his father drives him to Quigley every day.
"It's a sacrifice," he said, "a big sacrifice.
"But what I'm getting here is worth it."
Brian David can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 724-375-6816.