Sonoma’s other high school

While 1,320 teenagers trod off to Sonoma Valley High School every day, about 90 students head to the other valley, to attend Justin-Siena High School in Napa.

“We are an incredible school,” said David Holquin, director of admissions at Justin-Siena. “It is unfortunate that education funding keeps being cut by the state. In contrast, we are expanding.”

He pointed to the school’s engineering program, assorted electives and 42 athletic teams. This year’s $14,000 tuition also provides a faculty and staff committed to academic excellence and rigor. Ninety-eight percent of Justin-Siena students go on to college, 80 percent of those go to four-year schools.  Additionally, the 40-acre campus “is safe.  There are no police or fights. Parents and students are not anxious,” said Holquin.

Of the school’s  655 students, 88 students are from Sonoma, drawn by the school’s strong academic program and Catholic framework.

Anne Byrne, mother of 2011 Justin-Siena graduate, Bryan, and current student, Stina, a junior, said she chose it because it is the most convenient Catholic high school for her family.  “We are practicing Catholics and it is essential in the teen years for the Catholic values to be something they are reared with at home and in school.” She said that she feels the faculty really cares, and that the teachers have fewer restrictions on how they are able to interact with the students.

Byrne wants her children to have an education that fulfills the mind, body and soul, and pointed out that the teachers can offer a supportive hug, something forbidden in public schools.  When they are met with challenges, “it’s better to have the strength of spiritual beliefs to help them carry the crosses that kids bear.  Teachers can’t say, ‘God made you.  You are good and of value,’ in public schools.”

Stina Byrne likes attending Justin-Siena because, “its more than just an education.  It’s a community that teaches you about life.  There are more opportunities.”  She plays on the varsity tennis team and is looking forward to performing in the chorus of the school musical, “Footloose.”  She participated in “Displace Me,” an overnight experience at the school, which taught her about “change for our world and to feel what it’d be like if you were homeless.”  She likes starting each class with prayer.  “It’s good to breathe, ‘cause school is really stressful and everything.”  She finds great support from her community, saying they really care about each other, and likes that her friends are driven and active in class.  “It’s a great place to find who you are.”

Carter Latno, another junior, plays varsity football and basketball, and his favorite thing about Justin-Siena is the staff of great teachers.  “I’m not a total scholar, but my teachers make it doable.”  He appreciates that they are willing to provide extra help when he needs it.  “If you’re behind, they’ll tell you.  They’re not going to let you fail.”

Former Sonoma Mayor Joanne Sanders wanted her children to have a Catholic education, to have religion everyday.  Her son, Calvin, is very active in the school, has played varsity water polo, baseball, golf and football, and is participating in mock trials, something that will serve him well, as he would like to be a lawyer.  The Sanders family is also a big part of the International Student Program and has been a host family for seven students over the years.  “It’s important to be involved in community and to expose the kids to other cultures, so their minds open and they see how other teenagers are.  It’s a healthy dose of diversity, a gift to these kids.”  The school has 25 students from foreign countries.

One parent, whose child went to Justin-Siena for just one year said, “I’m sorry to say that I bought into the belief about ‘the evil, awful Sonoma Valley High School.’  That’s not a good reason to send a child to Justin-Siena. And, even the best, private, religious education, in a loving community filled with opportunity for positive, supervised activities and growth won’t stop teens from finding trouble if they look for it.”

Does one have to be Catholic to attend Justin-Siena?  Holquin established that 40 percent of the student body is, in fact, non-Catholic.  “We are open and available for families who are desirous of the education we provide.”  He emphasizes, “as long as they are respectful that we are Catholic.”

Latno had no idea that so many of his classmates are not Catholic.  Even though they have religion class every other day, “they’re not going to force it upon us.”  There is one student who doesn’t believe, and engages in lively debates with the teacher.  “It’s cool how everyone can get along and one person doesn’t believe,” said Latno.

There are many compelling reasons to enroll in Justin-Siena, but what about that commute?  A bus picks kids up from 10 stops in Sonoma in the morning, and in the afternoon there are two buses, one immediately after school and another activity bus, which departs at 6 p.m., allowing the students to participate in after school clubs or sports.  “We are proud to serve families from Sonoma and the relationships we’ve developed.  We’ve tried to make it realistic and feasible for them to make the commute,” said Holquin.

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