Nestled on 400 acres along the bluffs of the Elkhorn River sits a campus rich in history and tradition. At the invitation of Archbishop Gerald Bergan, monks from Conception Abbey out of Missouri arrived in Elkhorn in 1953. The monks founded Mount Michael monastery with a goal of training young men for the priesthood.
The school was built in 1956 and served as a high and junior college for seminary students. Called St. John Vianney, the seminary operated until 1970, when the number of students declined enough that the monastic community decided it was time to change the school’s focus, instead creating a Catholic boarding school with an emphasis on college preparatory courses but with Benedictine values.
Abbot Michael Liebl, OSB, who was a seminary student at St. John Vianney and later came back to teach at Mount Michael, said the school’s Benedictine influence is its family environment. Although one-third of its students are day-students and don’t board there, there is still a strong emphasis on the advantages that a boarding school provides. “A lot of education happens outside the classroom, and boarding creates a strong unity among the students and teaches them to be self-sufficient,” Abbot Michael said. “It’s what separates us from other high schools in Omaha.”
With enrollment steadily increasing over the last decade, the school’s leadership recognized they needed to make facility improvements in order to uphold its ideals for education both inside and outside the classroom. In 2010 the school launched a capital campaign for a new building that would house its science, technology, engineering, and math classrooms, enabling them to free up space in the existing building and update living quarters for students. Named the David “DJ” Sokol Learning for Life Building, the 47,000 sq. ft. facility opened in January, and “levels the playing field” among local high schools for Mount Michael, according to Abbot Michael.
The Learning for Life Building not only appeals to existing students, but it will also help attract more international students, something that Head of School Dr. David J. Peters, Ed.D. said is another area of emphasis for the school going forward. “Because we have such a strong academic record, students from continents such as Asia, Africa, Europe, and South America have all come here,” he said. “It’s a way for them to be exposed to an American educational format and learn the language, but at a much lower cost than east and west coast boarding schools, for example.” About 15 percent of its 238 students are international, and the school’s leadership actively recruits in other countries.
With an average ACT score of 28.6 among the May 2018 graduating class, there’s a high expectation at Mount Michael that its students will excel. And although technology plays a vital role, especially incorporated it into its classrooms and curriculum in the new building, there are still limits set. “We don’t want our students to rely too much on apps,” Peters explained. “We have an excellent staff who respect students’ abilities to problem solve and find answers on their own. It’s one way we help them become better students.” Another way is by challenging them outside the classroom. Every incoming freshman is required to participate in a fall sport, as well as other activities throughout their career at Mount Michael, whether its speech, drama, music, etc. “We want to push students in different ways—physically, intellectually, and spiritually,” Peters added.
The application process for Mount Michael requires students to complete an application, obtain three recommendations from teachers, take an entrance exam, and complete an interview. The admissions committee looks for well-rounded kids who want to be challenged to become the best they can be. And Mount Michael offers financial assistance whenever possible. “We have a number of needs-based and work-study students, so if money is an issue, we try to make it not be one,” Peters said.
Although Mount Michael has been a part of the West Omaha community for more than 40 years, Abbot Michael said there’s still a segment of the community that doesn’t know about them as an option for boys entering high school. Prospective students are invited to student visit days where they spend a day with another student, they can attend an annual open house in the fall, as well as a recreational summer camp just to experience being away from home for a week. “We welcome everyone,” Peters said. “If you’re interested in a unique educational opportunity for your son, come see us.”