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‘Dreams come true’ at St. Rita School

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COURT IN SESSION: St. Rita’s School students enjoy the new basketball court that is one of the features of a $7.5-million renovation project at their school. Cardinal Robert W. McElroy will be on campus Jan. 18 to bless the recent construction, which also includes an art studio, turf field and prayer grotto. (Credit: Andy Hayt)

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SAN DIEGO — A $7.5-million renovation project at St. Rita’s School has transformed the urban campus, providing its students with increased safety and new opportunities.

Cardinal Robert W. McElroy will visit the school on Thursday, Jan. 18, to celebrate Mass and to bless the new additions to the campus, which include an art studio, a turf field, a basketball court, new play structures, and a prayer grotto.

Principal Gina Olsen said the various elements of the recent project, dubbed “Art, Play, Pray,” represent “dreams-come-true for this community.”

The project was primarily financed by the Manitou Fund, which contributed $6.5 million. The Shea Foundation donated an additional $500,000, with the remainder coming in the form of smaller donations.

The project at St. Rita’s is the latest in a series of campus renovations that have taken place in recent years at Catholic elementary schools, like Our Lady’s School, St. Charles School, St. Columba School, St. Mary’s School (Escondido) and St. Katharine Drexel Academy, and at Cathedral Catholic, Mater Dei Catholic, Vincent Memorial Catholic and Cristo Rey San Diego high schools.

Olsen said the original idea for St. Rita’s renovation was “to just create a safer play space for our students,” who were playing on “a very steeply sloped asphalt parking lot” that the school shared with the parish. But the project evolved into something much more ambitious.

St. Rita’s School broke ground on the new construction in November of 2022.

Two older buildings were razed. With the demolition of the former convent, which was being used as storage space, the school was able to expand the playground. St. Rita’s original parish hall, which had been repurposed as a cafeteria before falling into disrepair, was torn down to make room for the new prayer grotto.

Newly constructed gates and walls have replaced much of the chain-link fencing and enhanced campus security.

Students in kindergarten through eighth grade will attend their twice-weekly art class inside the approximately 1,200-square-foot art studio. The new building, which has large windows on its west-facing side and glass accordion doors on the east-facing side, will allow students to explore a wider variety of artistic disciplines.

The turf field and the basketball court will be available for P.E. classes as well as for students to enjoy during recess, lunch breaks, and before and after school. Extracurricular sports teams will be able to hold their practices on campus instead of at the Encanto Recreation Center.

New climbing structures with slides were installed, one for preschoolers and another for elementary school students, replacing structures that were more than 20 years old.

Near the one in the preschool yard is a new mural, which depicts a cheerful garden scene. A rose representing St. Rita is surrounded by other plants, animals and natural elements with symbolic meaning, including hummingbirds, caterpillars, sun flowers, clouds and the sun.

Olsen said she can see the grotto, which features a statue of the Blessed Mother and room for others, being used for class retreats.

Though there was no requirement that the new facilities be shared with the wider community, the donors hoped that the addition of the grotto would serve “as a connection between the school and the parish communities,” Olsen said.

“The donors envisioned a space that was safe and nurturing during the week, that could also be enjoyed by parishioners and school families watching their kids play on the field or basketball court while they enjoyed coffee and donuts or some quiet reflection time in the grotto,” said Olsen, who noted that the area also provides a nice spot for photos after wedding Masses at St. Rita Church.

Seventh-grader Emmalani Pham, who has attended St. Rita’s for almost nine years, likes her school’s “new look.”

“I’m excited for the new field for safer playground time and the art studio for better art classes, more interactive,” she said, “and the prayer grotto is a nice touch to it.”

Fellow seventh-graders Christian Michel and Arianna Moore were also enthusiastic about the changes to their campus.

Christian recalled that, when playing soccer on the blacktop, students would “fall very easily” and hurt themselves. Arianna echoed that sentiment and also predicted that the school “wouldn’t be as hot anymore” with the blacktop replaced by turf.

Emmalani said, “It’ll definitely be safer … for all the students, and it will look nicer, and hopefully more people will come and join our school.”

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