Work starts on St. Joseph's Catholic School building

A concrete slab around the corner from Lampson Stadium marks more than just the physical foundation of a new school building.

The construction site speaks to the vigor of a parish, the church's commitment to the east side of Kennewick and a community's passion for Catholic education, said Ralph LeCompte, principal of St. Joseph's Catholic School.

The project is paid for entirely by local donations.

A few months after voters across the state turned down public schools' requests for construction money, the parish this summer broke ground on a new building that will modernize and increase its offerings.

Once St. Joseph's new middle school is completed next spring, the current middle school building will house elementary school classrooms and the old elementary will take in pre-schoolers and a day care.

The new 17,000-square-foot building will bring many improvements to the about 400 K-8 students attending the private school.

It will provide room for special facilities currently housed in makeshift spaces around the small campus. The new building will be equipped with a sound-proof music room, a computer lab, a science lab and a library, LeCompte said.

It also will include six regular classrooms, a computer server room and offices for administrators and teachers. All that space will free up the two existing school buildings on campus, which were built in 1964.

The parish nearly two decades ago drew up a 25-year-plan for building projects.

First came the new church, which was completed in 2003. Since then, the big fundraising push has been for the school, LeCompte said.

The parish of about 2,000 families managed to raise the whole $2.3 million the school was expected to cost. But then the housing bubble burst and construction companies became desperate for work.

Companies from all over the state sent in bids, LeCompte said. Local company J N Jacobson & Son got the nod, at just under $1.9 million.

The $400,000 the parish saved will go into modernizing the old buildings, which will take in the smaller kids next spring.

The building is scheduled to be done in March and the school may do the big move during the school year, perhaps in spring break. And if the project runs over a little, the move may happen in the middle of a school day.

"I wouldn't mind having a kid carry his own desk over there," LeCompte said with a grin.

That wouldn't have been an option at his old job. Before LeCompte took the private-school gig two years ago, he spent 30-plus years in Washington public schools, most recently as assistant principal of Southridge High School in Kennewick.

He enjoys the "purity of the process" at the Catholic school, he said. "We can just focus on the essentials, without distractions," he said.

Parents send their kids here because the curriculum matches their faith and moral values. But some also come because they seek an alternative to crowded classrooms in districts where bond levies failed, LeCompte said.

Tuition at the school is about $3,200 a year for parish members for the first kid in the family, $4,000 for non-members. Some financial aid is available and the per-student rate goes down for families with more than one child in school.

And while enrollment hasn't grown during the recession, it didn't slip either. That's the sign of a vibrant, growing parish, LeCompte said.

The new school also illustrates the health of the parish, LeCompte said. And it shows its commitment to be an anchor in a neighborhood that lacks the big houses and new storefronts of addresses farther west.

"We're making a statement about this side of town (with this project)," LeCompte said. "We're here, we're staying -- this is a great part of town."