When the Diocese of Trenton announced in late 2017 that it could no longer financially support Holy Cross High School and would be closing its doors the following summer, the news was met with disappointment across South Jersey. After all, the school had been a fixture in the community for six decades, and the thought of it no longer producing young men and women of principle who could positively impact the world around them was upsetting, to say the least.
For a select group of proud alumni, however, it was no time to be down in the dumps or feeling sorry for themselves. It was a call to action.
Thanks to their fundraising and reorganization efforts—and determination to not let their alma mater become just a memory—an independent Catholic high school known as Holy Cross Prep Academy was born for the 2018-19 school year. Fusing the traditions of its rich history with an eye on progressive, 21st century education, “Holy Cross 2.0” has proven to be a rousing success in the years since.
“I think it was a real labor of love that these people got together and knew it was important for the only Catholic faith-based school in Burlington County to keep going,” says Principal Alice Penza, who arrived for the first year of Holy Cross Prep after serving for 23 years as dean of students at Bishop Eustace.
“They’ve worked really hard and we have worked really hard over the past four years. Our enrollment has been going up every year since we’ve been here and that’s a great sign for us. Our academics are expanding and we have been committed to keeping the spirit that made Holy Cross so great in the first place.”
Honoring the past while pushing Holy Cross forward, Penza adds, is at the crux of the school’s mission statement. For that reason, past generations of students who paved the way for the current ones will always have a special place in the hearts of the administration.
“I can’t say enough about our alumni base,” says Alex Pracher, who was the athletic director for three years before moving into his current role as COO. “Once I got here, it was very clear why we survived and are now thriving. The alumni base is strong, they are passionate, they want to see us succeed and at every turn they are there and making sure that occurs.”
At the same time, the new leadership of the school knew that changes had to be made in order to make Holy Cross a place local families could trust for offering a modern, all-encompassing education for years to come. That is why certain existing programs were improved upon and expanded, while others were adopted to cater to the needs of today’s students.
Take, for example, Holy Cross’ dual credit program in conjunction with Rowan College at Burlington County and Seton Hall University. As early as their freshman year, students are able to enroll in a variety of courses while earning college credit, and can graduate four years later with up to 60 college credits. Considering the rising costs of college, the ability to save anywhere from $10,000 to $40,000 in tuition is a major boost to families.
“We are in discussions with other schools about dual credit offerings and those opportunities just continue to increase,” Pracher says. “We’ve had several students within the last few years go into college as sophomores because of all the credits they got here. We also have a block schedule and a collegiate-type atmosphere, and we feel that our students are really benefitting from that long term, whether it’s financially, socially, emotionally or obviously academically.”
Holy Cross also started a STEM program in 2019 with the support of the Baiada family, alumni from the school and the team behind Bayada Home Health Care. Penza says it has been widely popular because it prepares students for careers in the desired fields of science, technology, engineering and math and utilizes current engineering software and design processes.
Penza, who has spent her entire career in Catholic education, recognizes the importance of a school like Holy Cross and its unique offerings for kids from Burlington to Camden, Gloucester and Mercer counties. She was especially proud of the way the staff adapted to the challenges that began in early 2020, as the school’s focus on technology proved to be crucial in the early days.
“We felt that we were really ahead of the game in being able to seamlessly continue with instruction,” she says. “Then we returned to school last year five days a week and we implemented a very successful protocol plan. We gave our students the best educational opportunity that we possibly could.”
Holy Cross has tripled its academic scholarship offerings for next year and will welcome prospective students for an open house on Oct. 27. Families are encouraged to discover a school where tradition and Catholic faith merge with modern curriculum.
“Our mission statement is: Honoring our traditions, pursuing our future,” Pracher says. “I think if you were part of this community for even a few days, you would recognize that the mission statement rings true. As we move forward I feel very strongly about where we are. A few years ago we were in a position where there was a lot of uncertainty. That uncertainty is gone, we’ve proven that. We still have a long way to go but we’re feeling very confident and excited about this next stage.”
Holy Cross Prep Academy
5035 Route 130, Delran
Published (and copyrighted) in Suburban Family Magazine, Volume 12, Issue 6 (September 2021).
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