From Strength to Strength: The Aquinas Story
As St. Thomas Aquinas High School turns 80, the school community harkens back to 1936 when St. Anthony School enrolled 12 high school students to initiate Catholic secondary education in Broward County. Under the aegis of the Dominican Sisters from Adrian, Michigan, and motivated by the motto, “Not for school but for life we learn,” the school grew to a student body of 42 in four years, boasting of nine graduates who comprised the Class of 1940. Sister Mary Margaret Saundies, followed by Sister Laurine, provided the strong leadership needed in those pioneer years when St. Anthony High School earned its initial affiliation with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools in 1941.
Impressed with the development of the high school, the St. Anthony Church Community launched a drive to generate funds for building a new Catholic high school. Meanwhile, continuing the Dominican philosophy of education, Sister Matthew Ann McGrath, Sister Mary Stella Martin, and Sister Mary Alban Bergen served in succession as administrators of the burgeoning high school for the next 11 years. During their administration, the enrollment grew to 202 students; and the Class of 1952 numbered 41, the last class to graduate from St. Anthony High School.
While the curriculum and enrollment expanded, extracurricular offerings did the same. Although a basketball team made its debut before football, the young Raiders, led by Coach Pius G. (Bo) Litzinger, opened their first football season in 1946, playing six games and compiling a record of 0-5-1. During the next season, with an average roster of 26 players, pared down to 15 at one point by injuries, St. Anthony High School gained its first gridiron victory over Trinity Lutheran, 13-6, at Stranahan Field on November 7, 1947. Five cheerleaders led fans in support of the Raiders who took the field in new uniforms, blue with gold-striped nylon pants. Additionally, the school published its first yearbook, the 110-page Veritas, Volume 1, in 1950.
Realizing the need for a more extensive campus and seeking to afford the school its own identity, Archbishop Joseph P. Hurley purchased 20 acres “way out west,” at 2801 SW 12th Street, in 1948. Named Central Catholic High, the school moved to its present location in 1952, enrolling 218 students under the direction of Sister Mary Basil. In 1958, the Archdiocese appointed Reverend Patrick C. Slevin, supervising principal, and in 1959, Reverend Donald F.X. Connolly. Both priests worked with Sister Mary Florine who had succeeded Sister Mary Basil in 1956.
The original Central Catholic campus consisted of the main office wing, library, 15 classrooms, patio, cafeteria, kitchen, coaches’ office, and locker room facilities. Annexing a track, baseball and softball fields, field house, and tennis courts in the ensuing years, the school also erected a statue of Mary in 1957, the same statue that graces the campus today. Portable classrooms first appeared in 1959 to accommodate the growing student body that soared to 828 students by 1961, with 200 graduates that year.
In September 1961, the school chose St. Thomas Aquinas as its patron and official name, under the leadership of Reverend Patrick S. McDonnell and Sister Mary Florine. Two years later, Reverend Robert F. Reardon became supervising principal, working with Sister Mary Florine until 1965 and Sister Mary Anthony until 1970. During the decade of the 60s, Aquinas added 12 classrooms, built the gymnasium, and constructed new tennis courts.
The 1970 school year welcomed Reverend Vincent T. Kelly (photo left), who worked with Sister Mary Anthony for a year and then assumed the role of sole administrator until 1979 when Sister John Norton joined him to head Aquinas’ 1272 students. From 1970 to 1974, the school upgraded the baseball and softball fields, fenced in the entire campus, remodeled the cafeteria, partitioned off an art lab, enlarged locker rooms and the field house, and added coaches’ offices. In 1975, Coach George F. Smith began his long tenure as head football coach of the Raiders. On September 19th of the same year, Brian Piccolo Memorial Stadium welcomed fans to its inaugural football game played with the Raiders’ first, true, home-field advantage, where the Raiders won over Cardinal Gibbons, 14-6. “I’m sure Brian would be real happy with this field,” said Bo Litzinger who had coached Piccolo in football, basketball, and baseball at Central Catholic before he graduated in 1961 (photo right). To accommodate such a large enrollment during the remainder of the 70s, the campus expanded east with additional science labs; west with a larger library, conference room, offices, and seven classrooms; and north with more parking areas and the Ralph R. Bailey Building, adding 15 classrooms. While growing in size, the school also recognized its first National Merit Scholars, with ten finalists qualifying between 1976 and 1980.
During the following 20 years, growth, expansion, and enhancement served as watchwords for the school. Advanced Placement classes, together with preparation courses and curricular components addressing PSAT and SAT skills and strategies, boosted students’ test scores and increased the number of Advanced Placement and National Merit Scholars. Advancements in science and technology prompted the construction of the John A. Kelly Building along with the establishment of computer labs and a school-wide computer network. Guidance offices, classrooms, and parking lots continued to multiply; and the Enzweiler Family Room provided a center for the increasing number of parents engaged in assisting the staff. An imposing tower and porte cochere enhanced the main entrance while additional offices, a small conference room, and the Dominican Chapel with beautiful stained glass windows completed the main office wing renovation. Providing a band/music room and devoting more space to teaching various media in the art curriculum strengthened the fine arts program. Installation of new lighting throughout the campus, air conditioning in the gymnatorium, hurricane-proof windows in many areas of the campus, and a perimeter wall and gates around the entire campus fulfilled some of the practical updates needed for security and comfort. When Sister John Norton retired from her administrative duties in 1996, Mr. William Heller became principal for the next four years, followed by Mrs. Tina Jones in 1999.
In the first decade of the new millennium, Aquinas unveiled a new library media-center with a television studio, additional classrooms, a tri-level parking garage, and the Strand Building. State-of-the-art athletic facilities included the Smith Center with classrooms, conference room, fitness center, offices, and locker rooms, as well as Brian Piccolo Stadium’s new field-turf, re-surfaced rubberized track, concession stands, restrooms, and grass practice field. Teachers and students helped to beautify the campus environment with trees, plants, and flowers. The completion of the Bienes Center for the Performing Arts offered a state of-the-art venue for showcasing school as well as community performances in drama, dance, and music (photo left).
The next five years saw technology evolving rapidly through an innovative initiative using broadband communication capabilities. As the first steps in this evolution, STA chose Blackboard as the learning management system for teachers, parents, and students; adopted the Google Chromebook for all students; established a state-of-the-art Innovation Center; and relocated the Library/Media Center to a more centralized and dynamic information hub called the STAR Lab. Eventually, the faculty replaced the Chromebook with the Surface Pro.A newly constructed practice gymnasium provided additional space for indoor teams with full-sized basketball and volleyball courts (photo right). In addition to the expansion and maintenance of parking areas and new landscaping around the campus, ongoing renovations to the physical plant included improvements to offices, classrooms, and restrooms: painting, lighting, ceilings, roofing, flooring, air conditioning, and furniture. Areas in the Bienes Center, Litzinger Athletic Center, and Gymnasium received facility and equipment updates as well. During the summer of 2015, the school buzzed as a hive of activity with the renovation of several science labs, a new robotics lab, and the “extreme makeover” of the Cafeteria, including new impact windows, a ceiling wave, and new refrigeration equipment. In the fall, Dr. Denise Aloma took the reins as Principal, introducing STA Primetime primarily for PSAT, SAT, and ACT preparation. Additionally, the school year of 2015-2016 ushered in a new look for the students: navy and khaki beltless pants and casual, untucked tan and navy shirts.
Today, the STA campus spreads over 25 acres in urban Fort Lauderdale where 2136 students study 225 different courses, including 30 AP classes, in 97 classrooms and laboratories. Aquinas draws from 105 feeder schools, 46 Catholic parishes, and three counties. The Archdiocese of Miami operates the school, accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. Aquinas maintains membership in the National Catholic Educational Association, Southern Association of Independent Schools, Florida Association of Academic Non-Public Schools, Florida Catholic Conference, Broward County Non-Public School Association, and The College Board. The United States Department of Education has twice named STA a Blue Ribbon School of Excellence, in 1985 and 1996; STA ranks among the top 50 Catholic high schools in the country.
The professional staff, averaging 19 years of teaching experience and 12 years of STA teaching experience, numbers 123 full-time members and consists of a diocesan priest and 122 lay persons; 68 teachers hold advanced degrees. Presently, 29 STA graduates teach at the school and five serve on the support staff.
Academic excellence remains the solid foundation of this tradition-rich school. Accomplishments of the Class of 2016 include 37 students earning commendations from the National Merit Scholarship Program; 305 students achieving Advanced Placement Scholarship identification; and the class as a whole accruing more than $57.8 million in academic, athletic, military, and special talent scholarships. The most recent academic addition, STA PrimeTime, gives students the “Edge” in PSAT, SAT, and ACT preparation with daily strategy lessons and practice tests that supplement the curriculum.
Catholic identity thrives at STA throughout the entire school year. When the school community gathers to celebrate school Masses, the gymnasium transforms into a beautiful worship space. Serving those who remain “the least” in the community, STA witnesses to the call of Jesus to serve everyone. According to Pope Francis, “Where does Jesus send us? There are no borders, no limits: He sends us to everyone.” Campus Ministry awakens students and faculty to the reality of Jesus present in their lives. In various ways, Faith experiences and formation come alive through the Theology curriculum; class retreats; and the opportunities for individual participation as Eucharistic ministers, lectors, servers, and in CrossRoads, a liturgical, musical group. Additionally, students serve local parishes and schools with an evolving middle school and Confirmation retreat program. Monthly Nights of Fellowship combine Faith, friendship, and fun into a celebration of spiritual camaraderie.
The tradition of excellence has met technology’s demands with the most updated educational environments. Differentiated instruction challenges students to achieve their potential and prepare for the future. With Blackboard as the learning management system for teachers, parents, and students, the entire campus operates on the Google platform; and every student uses a Dell Chromebook. The STAR Lab serves as a research and technology hub where faculty and students engage in unique collaborative experiences in all aspects of the curriculum. Recent academic and renovation efforts have shifted the focus towards Robotics and STEAM instruction.
Students have the opportunity to become involved in more than 40 clubs. The commitment to community service engagement distinguishes STA students from the rest. Year in and year out, they receive recognition among the best in Broward County by the Annual Miami Herald Silver Knight Awards, making a difference in the local community.
Aquinas Raider athletes participate in more than 40 boys’ and girls’ teams and have won 12 national and 107 state championships. Football, girls’ volleyball, boys’ and girls’ soccer, track, and lacrosse consistently rank among the best, nationally. College athletic scholarships continue as the norm for those STA graduates who wish to compete at the next level. Presently, STA has more students participating in college athletics than any other school in the nation.