Twenty years ago, five families decided they wanted a different type of school for their children — one with a classical, rigorous curriculum that also was grounded in the Catholic faith.
There were plenty of schools in the city and North suburbs that they felt offered one or the other, but there wasn’t one that addressed both to the level that they wanted.
Aquinas Academy in Hampton was the results of their efforts.
“We naively thought it wouldn’t be that hard,” said Peter Blume, president of the board of the academy and one of the founding members. Peter and his wife, Patricia, are the parents of eight children — five of whom have graduated from Aquinas and three who still attend. Ms. Blume also is a first-grade teacher at the school.
The Blumes and the four other families started in the school in 1996 with five faculty members and 15 students in grades 3, 4 and 6.
“Ten of those children were from the founding families and the grades were reflective of the ages of the students that we had at that time,” Mr. Blume said. One of the part-time teachers was a professor at Franciscan University of Steubenville.
“He really believed in our mission,” Mr. Blume said.
The classical curriculum, according to Mr. Blume, is one that focuses heavily on the basics of education including reading, mathematics and science while focusing heavily on Latin and classical literature.
They also have a strong Catholic component to the curriculum. While the Pittsburgh Catholic Diocese must approve the religious studies aspect of their studies, the school receives no financial support from the diocese.
“It’s a real challenge because Catholic schools are struggling all across the country and we are in the midst of very strong public school systems, but we are on par with very expensive private schools and are Christ-centered,” Mr. Blume said.
The first year of Aquinas was funded by a $50,000 family donation that covered most of the expenses, including rent for three classrooms and faculty salaries.
By the third year of classes, Aquinas had grown to 56 students and added more grades. For 2015-2016, there are approximately 360 students from 12 school districts in grades pre-K through 12.
“We believed in the school and hoped we would grow, but we never thought we would grow as quickly as we did,” Mr. Blume said.
Aquinas is the only Catholic school in the Pittsburgh area for children in grades pre-K through 12, according to head of school Leslie Mitros, who has been at Aquinas since 1999.
“The mission to both the Catholic faith and the academics is what drew me to Aquinas,” she said.
Among the milestones have been building athletic fields in 2003, renovating the lower level of the former St. Catherine’s Church in 2005 for more classroom space, building a $2.3 million gymnasium in 2008 and the high school facility in 2014.
Mrs. Mitros said two of the 12 students in the Class of 2004 were accepted at Notre Dame.
“That was a big milestone for us academically, that our students were accepted into notable institutions of higher education,” she said. Since the first graduate in 1999, students have attending such notable schools as Yale University, Carnegie Mellon, the University of Pittsburgh, Duquesne University and Penn State University.
Another benchmark event was in 2007 when the women’s field hockey team advanced to the WPIAL championships.
“It is really hard to compete when you have a little school so this was very important to us,” Mrs. Mitros said.
The school is planning a yearlong celebration Speaker Series starting Sept. 2. There will be a gala event in the spring and other activities for the students throughout the year.
As the school looks to the future, Mrs. Mitros said they hope to continue to expand on their strong academic foundation and to reach an enrollment of 500 students.
“It took an incredible amount of courage and energy from those families to start this school, but it really paid off,” Mrs. Mitros said.
Kathleen Ganster, freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org.