The History of
St. Joseph Catholic School
St. Joseph Catholic Church was founded in 1844 by seven families who emigrated from Ireland. It is the oldest continuous Catholic community in Fayetteville and is currently located on the original site where the first small log cabin church was located east of Fayetteville.
As the parish community grew it was necessary for St. Joseph’s to relocate in 1878 to the corner of Lafayette and Willow Streets. At this time a group of Mexican nuns established the first formal Catholic educational institution in Fayetteville to serve the members of the parish. Throughout the school’s history, several religious orders, including the Sisters of the Incarnate and the Ursuline Sisters came to Fayetteville to supervise the school’s educational programs.
In 1948, the parish acquired a residence on the corner of Lafayette and Walnut and opened a school with 39 pupils taught by Benedictine sisters from St. Scholastica in Fort Smith. The school grew to 105 students by 1954, and construction began on a new school building for 1st through 8th grades. An all-day Kindergarten program was added in 1955 and a ninth grade was added in September of 1956. As the years passed, enrollment dropped, and the 7th, 8th and 9th grades were discontinued. The Benedictine Sisters continued to run the school until 1971 when the Franciscan Sisters of Wheaton, Illinois joined the teaching staff with an additional four lay teachers. From 1982 to 1986, a Franciscan Brother, Andrew Schmidt, served as principal of the school. He was followed by Mrs. Ann Ferrell Wilson, who served as principal for 10 years. During her tenure she oversaw an expansion of the school to nearly 300 students and 14 teachers. Deacon Chuck Marino succeeded Mrs. Wilson in 1996 and Mrs. Paula Thiessen became principal in 1999 at which time the school added a 7th grade class.
In May of 2001, St. Joseph received Vatican approval to construct a combination Chapel Center, Parish Offices, and Educational Facility on the property where the church was first established in 1844. Construction of the facility on Starr Drive was completed in August, 2002 and continues to serve as the school’s facility today. The PreK 4 program was added in 2002, and PreK3 program was added in 2006. Mr. Mark Holley served as principal during the 2005-2006 school year, and was succeeded in the following year by Mrs. Ann Finch.
In the spring of 2011, the church and school broke ground on the DeBriyn Family Life Center, a $3 million project named in honor of Norm and Carolyn DeBriyn who are long-time parishioners. Mr. DeBriyn served many years as the Razorback baseball coach and was ordained a permanent deacon in 2012. In the spring of 2012 the DeBriyn Family Life Center opened, housing a full-size gymnasium, an art room, a music room, and four new classrooms.
During the 2011-2012 school year, Mrs. Finch announced the creation of an Assistant Principal position which would be filled by middle school teacher Mr. Mark Wilburn. At the end of the 2011-2012 school year, Mrs. Finch stepped down as principal, and Mrs. Marcia Diamond was hired. Mrs. Diamond served as principal from 2012-2014. Mr. Jason Pohlmeier was hired as principal in 2014. Mr. Pohlmeier was principal of St. Edward Catholic School in Little Rock from 2009-2014 and served on the ANSAA accreditation team at St. Joseph in January 2014. An 8th grade class was added to begin the 2014-2015 school year as a response to the reorganization of building grade levels within Fayetteville Public Schools.
In September 2014, St. Joseph School was named as a 2014 National Blue Ribbon Exemplary High Performing School by the U.S. Department of Education becoming the first non-public school in NWA to receive this highest award in American education. Also in 2014, St. Joseph was named “Best Private School” in Northwest Arkansas by CitiScapes Magazine for the first time.
At the end of the 2014-2015 school year, Mr. Wilburn announced he was moving and Mrs. Michelle Hightower was hired as Assistant Principal. Mrs. Hightower had served as a teacher at St. Joseph for fourteen years and a school board member for two.
In January 2017, St. Joseph parish purchased 7.5 acres of land north of the parking lot to be the site of the future St. Joseph Church. Upon completion of that sanctuary, the existing worship center within the school building will be renovated.
Prior to the start of the 2019-2020 school year it was announced that Mr. Mark Wilburn would return to his position as Assistant Principal. The Wilburn family had returned to Fayetteville in January 2019. Mrs. Michelle Hightower returned to the junior high teaching team.
In the fall of 2019, St. Joseph was named “Best Private School” in Northwest Arkansas by CitiScapes Magazine for the sixth consecutive year. In October 2020, St. Joseph Catholic School was again named a National Blue Ribbon Exemplary High Performing School. In receiving this award a second time, St. Joseph became the first repeat winner of this award among all nonpublic schools in the state of Arkansas.
In March 2020, all schools in Arkansas and many throughout the country transitioned to remote learning in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. St. Joseph continued to offer instruction in new content through a variety of synchronous and asynchronous learning tools. Student test scores remained at the consistently high standard that the school had set despite the challenges of remote learning.
The 2020-21 school year began in the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic. The return-to-school options that were offered by other area schools did not meet the needs of many area families. As a result, St. Joseph began the 2020-2021 school year with an enrollment of 340 students in grades PK3-8, which included ninety-two new students from sixty new families. By the start of the 2022-2023 school year, the enrollment had grown to 378 students.
In 2022, Mr. Pohlmeier was ordained as a permanent deacon for the Diocese of Little Rock making it the second time that the school principal has been a deacon. During the 2022-2023, the school celebrates its 75th Anniversary and will mark the occasion with a variety of activities during the year-long celebration.
The current mission statement of St. Joseph Catholic School was adopted in October 2012 with a minor revision in 2017, and it reads as follows: “Leading students to Christ through academic excellence, respect for others, and community service.” The students of St. Joseph recite the school motto daily: “I will try my best every day to learn, to love others, and to act like Jesus.” This motto hangs above the main entrance, and was instituted prior to the memory of any current staff members.
The philosophy was evaluated in September 2013 and states: “To seek spiritual growth of students by developing a high quality Catholic-based program that promotes academic achievement, service to the community and a respect for life.” The goals of the school were reviewed when the philosophy of the school was last evaluated and are consistent with the goals published by the Catholic Schools Office of the Diocese of Little Rock. St. Joseph’s mission, philosophy, and goals guide the educational and spiritual curriculum provided by the Diocese of Little Rock through the “In Spirit and Truth” Curriculum Guide. The basis of the curriculum is maintained through specific textbook selections, diocesan guidelines, Common Core Standards, and curriculum maps.