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Shooting Stars
Four years in the making

by Phil Custodio

September 14, 2011

From left are Everest Girls High School seniors Annie Toohey and Mikayla Thibodeau, and Assistant Principal Greg Reichert.
Everest seniors Sam Bellestri, left, and Patrick Nalepa. Photos by Phil Custodio
The 17 students in Everest Collegiate High School's first senior class will spend this year establishing traditions for students who follow.

But that's nothing new. They were also the school's first junior, sophomore and freshman class.

"We were the oldest class for five years in a row," said Sam Bellestri, one of four boys and 13 girls in the senior class.

"This is a special class," said Greg Reichert, Everest Collegiate High School assistant principal. "I watched them facing their struggles as the first class, meet all challenges, build traditions, help new classes it was special to watch this great group of young men and women. They'll move on to great things."

In 2008, 21 14-year-olds comprised the entire high school student body, divided into boys and girls schools. They advanced a grade each year with new students following behind until this year, when the school has all four grades for the first time.

"It helped me grow as a person, spiritually and academically," said senior Annie Toohey. "Everything I learned in these four years, I'll bring to college."

Everest Academy, 5935 Clarkston Road, was founded in 1991 with programs for pre-school through eighth grade. Everest planned to expand with a high school for several years, and announced its opening in 2007.

Eighth graders at the time had a choice to make.

"They said that before, but this time they did it," said Bellestri, who has been an Everest student since preschool, 1997. "I made the right decision. I've grown more academically and it helped me come out of my shell."

Mikayla Thibodeau's parents encouraged her to enroll.

"I was nervous," said Thibodeau, an Everest student from second grade. "I didn't know what to expect. There was nothing to see, no grades ahead of us. But we adjusted to it."

"It was a difficult decision to make as an eighth grader," said Patrick Nalepa, who joined Everest Academy in the second grade. "A big appeal was being the first class, like a potter with a lump of clay we could do what we wanted with it. It was a great experience."

In 2008, Nalepa told The Clarkston News he was excited with the opportunity to be the first high school class.

"We'll set traditions student council, elections, drama programs, set up a game room, when dances will be," he said at the time.

"Yes, we did all that," he said, Aug. 31. "Administration provided lots of opportunities for input, always asking what we would like to do, what our ideas were."

Assigned to their own building, their freshman year was a bit lonely.

"It was weird there was no one else around," Nalepa said. "It was nice. We had our own building, a little more freedom than in eighth grade, and the opportunity to grow academically and spiritually."

"Freshman year was difficult, getting used to just 11 girls," Toohey said. "There were no girls to look up to."

"We had to start fresh it was a lot of fun figuring things out," Thibodeau said.

With sophomore year, 2009, they got some company in the new incoming freshman class.

"It was cool as sophomores," Nalepa said. "We had a new building behind the old middle school building. We weren't by ourselves anymore."

As eighth graders in middle school, they were close to the seventh grade students, he said.

"They weren't just random freshmen they were our buddies," he said.

"It started to turn into a high school," Bellestri said. "Basketball started that year."

They also worked with the new freshmen to set up a drama club, Thibodeau said.

"We made them feel welcome," she said.

They also organized Snowcoming and other dances, new sports, cheerleading, and other organizations.

"We'd bring the new freshmen in and show them the ropes," Toohey said. "It was an adjustment. I was used to one class."

Last year, they became upper classmen.

"As juniors, we had more options for classes and opportunities to nudge freshmen along," Nalepa said.

By then, the school had enough students for junior varsity as well as varsity teams in basketball, soccer, golf, and other sports.

They could also field complete teams previously, they would combine with students from Our Lady of the Lakes Catholic School in Waterford. They continue to field a combined team in football.

"It brought me out as a person," Thibodeau said. "I joined clubs I never would have considered before drama, cheerleading. I've never been on stage before."

Classroom opportunities include lots of electives, Advanced Placement, and online classes, Nalepa said.

"There's a huge number of options now," he said.

This year, the school has 90 students in all four grades.

"We're finally a full high school, and it feels like a high school," Bellestri said.

"There used to be 10 of us taking up a quarter of a hallway," Nalepa said. "Then the full hallway, then two hallways this year. You see people around, not empty spaces."

As juniors, the students took the Michigan Merit Examination. Scoring as "Proficient," at Level 1 or Level 2, in Math, 94 percent; Reading, 100 percent; Social Studies, 100 percent; Writing, 94 percent; and Science, 100 percent.

"We are very proud of our students and the teachers that have prepared them," said Chelsea Gheesling, Everest marketing and communications director. "We are very excited to see what's in store during their senior year."

Their academic success is due to Everest's faculty, strength of curriculum, and personal attention to students, said Reichert, who joined Everest High School administration last year and was a teacher there for 14 years prior.

The school's low student-teacher ratio helped, Toohey said.

"There was more one-on-one instruction, making it easier to understand," she said. "When there's 10 students in class, there's more personal attention."

It also instills confidence in the classroom, Thibodeau said.

"I'm not afraid to ask for help," she said.

The small class also helped bond students many have been together for the past 10 years, Nalepa said. "We get to know each other more than your own siblings," he said. "It's really neat to have a smaller class. It has a family atmosphere with great support to help reach academic goals."

With daily Communion and Mass, it also focuses on spiritual development, Bellestri said.

The 90-acre Everest campus also includes Everest Academy Girls' School and Boys' School, grades 3-8, and co-educational Elementary School, kindergarten-second grade, and Preschool, ages 3-4.

Everest Collegiate High School and Academy recently earned accreditation from the North Central Association Commission on Accreditation and School Improvement.

For information, contact Maura Plante at 248-241-9012 or visit www.everest-clarkston.org.