In honor of the upcoming Catholic Schools Week, celebrated this year from January 26-February 1, I wanted to write about a Catholic school very close to my heart, Everest Collegiate High School & Academy in Clarkston, Michigan. As one of the former marketing representatives for the school, I helped to launch the high school in 2008. All four of my children attended Everest. Currently, I am a grammar teacher in the Everest middle school.
CLARKSTON, MI -- Everest Collegiate High School & Academy has been recognized for excellence by both Catholic and secular reviewers. On September 28, 2016, the US Department of Education awarded National Blue Ribbon School Honors to Everest, naming it among the top 50 private schools in the US and the only private school in Michigan. Everest also is the only preschool through 12th grade educational institution in Michigan to win the award in both the public and private sectors. In February last year, Everest’s high school was named to the Catholic Education Honor Roll by the Cardinal Newman Society. The school was first awarded this recognition in 2012 when the award was called the Nation’s Top 50 Catholic High Schools and overseen by the Acton Institute. In 2014, Everest was named a School of Excellence by the Cardinal Newman Society and was recognized again in the Catholic Education Honor Roll in 2019.
Greg Reichert is the school’s headmaster and high school principal. He has dedicated his career to Everest. Previously a teacher there since 1996, he took the leadership role in 2010. Though he could easily have been a teacher and administrator in the public school system, he believes strongly in Catholic education.
“It does so much more than prepare us well for a career,” he said. “A Catholic education prepares us to make daily choices regarding how we want to encounter the world, such that we can be effective citizens, faithful mothers and fathers, people committed to our chosen earthly vocations in preparation for eternal life.”
He regularly tells parents making the decision between a public and Catholic education for their children that, though public schools “can do a good job instructionally, they are not designed or even allowed to fulfill the role to educate properly a young human person”.
“If one agrees that the human person is much more than a mind matched to a machine, awaiting training toward a specific skill or profession, then a broader education – or formation – of the ‘entire’ person must be considered,” he said, pointing out that Everest focuses on educating its students “mind, body, and spirit.”
The school’s president, Mike Nalepa, admits it is a challenging decision for parents to make the financial commitment to send their child to a private school. He remembers how hard it was for his own parents years ago to send all five of their children to Catholic school.
“It wasn’t until I was in my role as president of Everest that I realized that my parents accomplished their mission, but with great sacrifice,” he said.
He believes the benefits far outweigh the cost. “There is nothing more important than providing an authentic Catholic education to the students entrusted to us,” he said, adding he expects Everest graduates to be among the “future leaders who will transform society according to the standards of the Gospel.”
“If the parent wants their children to have strong values, live a virtuous life, and respect all the gifts God has provided them, there is no other choice then to send them to an authentic Catholic school," he said. "I would tell them that God is never out done in generosity, and that he will reward their investment in their child’s Catholic education tenfold.”
Nalepa and his wife Kathie are active members of the lay religious movement, Regnum Christi, which also includes a priestly vocation, the Legion of Christ. The movement’s education model, Integral Formation, is implemented at Everest and many other schools worldwide.
“We fell in love with the mission and vision of this authentically Catholic school and the founding families and school leadership,” said Nalepa.
Everest was established in 1991, located on a 90+ acre campus in the Clarkston Michigan area. Nalepa and his wife moved to Clarkston from Minnesota in 2001. At the time, he commuted to his job in Dearborn to send his own children to Everest so they “would receive an authentic Catholic education,” he explained.
He remembers joining Everest in 2005, which then was only preschool through 8th grade, knowing the plan was to start a high school. At the time, he joined the school leadership, bringing his business and financial talents to serve the Everest mission.
The high school opened at the bottom of the 2008 recession. “Many people thought we were crazy to start the high school at that time,” said Nalepa. He believes God smiled on that decision and rewarded the Everest community for its faithfulness.
“Traditionally, many small businesses do not survive their first five years in business,” he said. “Not only did Everest Collegiate High School survive our first five years, we thrived!”
Everest is a relatively small school, with about 300 students in the academy and 130 students in the high school. Despite its size, the school offers an impressive educational curriculum and manages to offer plenty of extracurricular activities to enrich the lives of its students.
Ann Serra-Lowney has been the athletic director at Everest for 15 years, first as academy AD and 10 years ago as AD for the high school. She also has been involved in Everest athletics beyond administration. “I have coached the following academy teams – volleyball, basketball and lacrosse. At the high school level I have coached the boys’ basketball team.”
“I honestly believe we have the most talented coaches in the state at the Division 4 level,” she said. “The following programs are coached by former college players or current professionals – boys’ basketball, girls’ basketball, competitive cheer, tennis, football, baseball and golf. When you have coaches with that kind of experience, our players become the best athletes they are capable of becoming.”
Serra-Lowney believes there are many benefits for student athletes who attend smaller schools. “Sports are sports, and a championship won at a D4 school is just as special as a championship won at a D1 school. But the difference between playing at a small school versus a big school is the student athlete has a chance to play multiple sports, which is so important to a young person’s physical health. Plus, it will help in a young person’s career. Statistics show companies love to hire people who have been multiple-sport athletes at any level.”
One sport at Everest that has had a particularly impressive history is the high school football program. Following is an excerpt from an October 26, 2019 article in the Oakland Press about the Everest performance in the Catholic High School League championship game against Gabriel Richard. Journalist Scott M. Burnstein writes:
"Clarkston Everest Collegiate has proved a microwave small-school power in Metro Detroit’s prep football ranks in less than a decade. It happened in what seemed like an instant. Just eight years ago, the Mountaineers didn’t even have their own program. They won six of their first seven games played in their inaugural 2013 campaign and haven’t missed a beat since. On Saturday, Everest coasted to their second Catholic League championship in a row on the campus of Eastern Michigan University by rocking Riverview Gabriel Richard 26-7 in a rematch of last season’s nip-and-tuck affair for the crown at Ford Field. Thanks to the convincing victory in the midst of a rain storm on the grey-turfed Rynearson Stadium, the mighty Mountaineers wrap-up the regular season undefeated (8-0) for the first time in school history."
Mountaineer head coach Mike Pruchnicki believes his team’s performance is aided not only by a strong work ethic and talented players, but by its spiritual commitment. Team jerseys are emblazoned with the motto “All for Him”, referring to Jesus Christ. In a video testimony for the Catholic League, Pruchnicki attributed his success and the success of all the schools in the Catholic League to a commitment to pray together, perform works of apostolic service (Everest participates in annual projects like making sandwiches for Detroit’s homeless) and attending Mass together as a team. He said a commitment to practice seriously the Catholic faith has “helped me become stronger, and it’s helped us become stronger as team at Everest.”
In recent years Pruchnicki and his team members have received recognition and kudos from the media, the Catholic League and the Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA). Pruchnicki himself has been named Coach of the Year for his division by the Associated Press and by the MHSAA.
Another impressive aspect about Everest is its diversity, due to a comprehensive international boarding program for students in 6th through 11th grade. Students from countries in Europe, Latin and South America, and Asia participate in the program.
Everest alumnus Rebecca Luttinen credits her choice to study international relations at the college level to her exposure to the international students at Everest. She graduated from the high school in 2016 as Valedictorian.
While in middle school at the academy, she became friends with many students who lived outside the US. One of those friends, a native of Spain, invited Becca to spend the summer with her there. “It was my first time going outside of the country,” said Becca, who was 13-years-old at the time. “The first time you travel, you want to go other places because you learn about the world and meet different people.”
After that experience, Luttinen decided to become a summer camp counselor through the ECYD Mission Corps and was given the opportunity to work in Ireland. “The memories I had from that time were some of my happiest,” she remembers.
Later she would participate in a missionary program to Mexico. “I didn’t want to stop doing that,” she said of her traveling experiences and exposure to other countries. The traveling helped her realize she wanted a career that offered continued international work. She decided to attend college at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, majoring in international relations and economics, and minoring in sustainable development.
Her time at Everest also made her realize she had an aptitude for learning languages. “I never would have become fluent in Spanish had I not attended Everest,” Luttinen said. Later on, through her university program, she was given the opportunity to learn Arabic, spending a semester studying in the country of Jordan. She also has done research and project development work Kenya and Uganda and visited Peru through Lehigh’s Global Citizenship Program.
Luttinen’s future career goals are evidence Everest is graduating the leaders who will transform the world. After her university graduation this spring, she hopes to work in a field helping to alleviate poverty in areas of the world where there is “real need”.
But she adds she does not have to work outside the US to do that. “There are people in this country who could benefit from my skills as well. I could as easily work in Detroit as in Somalia, or in Dearborn as in the Middle East.”