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South County : New Catholic High School Expected to Open in 1987

Discipline is rigidly enforced, you can’t wear jeans and you have to serve 100 hours of community service during your junior and senior years. Despite those aspects of life at Mater Dei, Orange County’s largest Catholic high school, almost half of those who apply are turned away.

Church officials think they can end the crush of applicants by 1987, when they hope to admit a freshman class at a new school in the yet-to-be-constructed community of Santa Margarita, located between Mission Viejo and Coto de Caza. The O’Neill family, owners of most of Rancho Mission Viejo, gave the church 40 acres within the 5,000-acre business, industrial and residential site.

Mater Dei’s principal, Father Michael Harris, who will become principal of the new school, said $20 million will pay for everything in the church’s preliminary plans, and a study to be released in July will show how much can realistically be raised. “If we can only expect to raise $10 million, we’ll have to radically rethink our plans,” he said.

The church envisions the school on 30 acres and featuring a 23,000-square-foot gymnasium, natural amphitheater, indoor theater and chapel, with a parish and elementary school on the remaining land. Church officials hope to break ground in January.

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About 3,500 students attend the county’s five Catholic high schools, 2,200 of them at Mater Dei, which is the only coeducational school. Applicants are selected according to grades, test scores, conduct and talents. Tuition at the new school, which will also be coeducational, will be comparable to Mater Dei at about $1,900 a year.

Harris said most parents who opt to send their children to Catholic schools do so because of the controlled environment. There are better test scores, more homework, tight discipline and lower truancy rates, and students must stick to more rigid course outlines than in public schools, he said.

On the other hand, Mater Dei doesn’t have the same resources as do many of the county’s public schools, although it does have two computer labs and plans call for a system of video programs. And, Harris was asked, aren’t Catholic students in some ways unprepared for life after high school, having been insulated within a strictly controlled environment?

“There is some sheltering in a Catholic school; it’s a very nurturing environment,” said Harris. “But we think it’s very beneficial. Our hope is to graduate people who are examples of what society can be like, not people who are hardened, tough and contributing to the lack of love and peace in the world. They may be a little more vulnerable but we think it’s a small price to pay given the benefits.”

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A freshman class of about 300 is anticipated in 1987. By the time they graduate, enrollment should be about 800, eventually leveling out at about 1,500. Officials have been studying plans for a new school since the Catholic Diocese was established in Orange in 1976, and Bishop William Johnson said it would “bring a long-held dream to reality.”

Harris, who first came to Mater Dei as a student in 1960, said he won’t have any problems shifting allegiance to the as-yet-unnamed school. Anyway, he won’t have to root against Mater Dei in the immediate future since the new school won’t be able to field varsity teams for at least four years.

He does have a plan for disposing of his various stuffed and sculpted lions, the Mater Dei mascot. “I think I have one of the largest collections of lion paraphernalia in the world, all of it gifts from students,” he said. “I’ll probably bequeath it to my successor.”


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