A new Catholic high school to open in Burnsville and founded by a former NFL star will be the first in the southwest metro region.
Unity High School is on track to welcome its first freshman class this fall in the same building as Mary, Mother of the Church, a large Catholic parish on Cliff Road. Officials plan to add grades each year thereafter to complete the 9th-12th grade format.
Former Super Bowl champion and Harvard Graduate Matt Birk is leading the school’s formation.
Birk and members of the school’s board and teaching staff met with families at an informational open house event on May 22 to talk about the school’s mission.
Several families were already sporting Unity sweatshirts and asking about which socks will go with the uniform. Some others were considering the school for down the road when their children reach high school age.
Birk described the school as “vigorously Catholic” with a focus on relationships, real-world teaching and authentic learning.
“They’re not just going to be some number in a classroom,” he said.
Over a dozen children, including Birk’s daughter, are enrolled in Unity’s inaugural freshman class.
The school’s founders hope to reach 25 students by the fall and one day grow the school to around 300 students. Birk joked the school will continue moving forward because he’ll have seven more kids to put through high school.
Prior Lake resident Maggie Stack toured the school alongside her three kids during the open house. Her children currently attend St. Michael Catholic School in Prior Lake, and she said the family’s excited to have a more affordable option for Catholic high school.
Unity’s tuition is $6,500 a year, compared to twice or three times as much as others in the region.
There are currently 10 Catholic grade schools south of the river but no high school. Birk said most students continue attending Catholic high school, but around 225 students from the area enter the public school system instead each year.
“Clearly there’s a need here, and that’s part of the reason we are doing this,” he said.
Mike Smalley will serve as the school’s principal.
Smalley, a Prior Lake resident, served as assistant principal of St. John the Baptist Catholic School in Savage 2007-2011 and was principal until 2016. He has also been a football coach at Burnsville High School and the Academy of Holy Angels.
Smalley is currently a student teaching supervisor at Gustavus Adolphus College. He holds a master’s degree in counseling and student personnel from Minnesota State University and a specialist degree in education leadership from Minnesota State University.
Students at Unity will start the day in a religion class and then move into language arts, math and foreign language, science and history. The school won’t be “tech-heavy,” Birk said. Cell phones will be collected each morning, and only math and foreign language will be taught partially through an online platform during the school day.
There will also be an emphasis on theater, Birk said. Jeremy Stanbary, founder of Open Window Theatre, will direct the theater program.
Theater will be taught during “Real World Wednesdays” — a weekly break from the regular classroom model when students will learn skills such as cooking and changing a tire.
There won’t be any Advanced Placement classes or opportunities to earn college credit in the classroom, but Birk said students will learn to see dignity in all work — regardless of whether they pursue college.