WAKEFIELD - At Nazareth Academy, 74 girls dressed in blue-and-green plaid skirts sit in spacious classrooms. They ponder how the ionosphere bounces AM radio waves back to Earth. They learn about Judeo-Christian relations in the second century. Seniors work on essays about “Brave New World’’ in Advanced Placement English class.
When acceptances to Dartmouth, Bryn Mawr, Williams, and other colleges are announced at a morning assembly, they share hugs and high-fives. At a Hollywood-themed semi-formal, they pose for photos with life-size cardboard cut-outs of Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez.
Trinity, the school choir, sang for Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican. The drama club was named Best Ensemble Cast, for its presentation of “10,000 Cigarettes,’’ a 10-minute antismoking play, in the state high school drama festival. School sports teams, nicknamed the Dragons, compete in the Girls Catholic Conference of the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association.
The all-girls high school was founded three years ago by parents and former staff of Our Lady of Nazareth Academy, which was closed by the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth in 2009.
“We wanted to preserve a single-sex education for our daughters,’’ said Joe Luna, chairman of the board of trustees, whose daughter is a senior. “We are no longer OLN, but our own small, growing school committed to an all-girls education.’’
The 12 seniors - who were freshmen at the time of the closing - are the last students connected to the old “Naz.’’
“We’ve come full circle,’’ said Avery Richardson, 18, of Danvers. “The other school closed, but we were able to stay together here. We’ve grown in a way we never thought we could.’’
“Everyone feels free to speak up here,’’ said Nicole Beauregard, 17, a senior from Reading and an aspiring singer, who has been accepted to the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester. “Our classes are small, so you don’t get lost in a big group.’’
The new Naz is not affiliated with the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth or the Archdiocese of Boston. But the school does follow Roman Catholic traditions. Students wear trademark plaid skirts. Each school day starts with prayer, and priests visit to say Mass. Statues of Madonna and Child grace the front lawn and main school corridor.
“We so believe in this school,’’ said principal Phyllis Morrison, a former teacher at Nazareth and Malden Catholic, a boys’ high school. “We want girls to have the same opportunities as boys. . . . This is a school where they will find their voice.’’
But schools like Naz are increasingly fading into history. Since 2002, the number of all-girls Catholic schools in the United States has dropped from 285 to 261, according to the National Catholic Education Association in Alexandria, Va. In Boston, after 127 years of educating girls, Mount St. Joseph Academy in June will merge with the coed Trinity Catholic High School in Newton. Since 2011, Presentation of Mary Academy in Methuen has admitted boys, leaving The Academy of Notre Dame in Tyngsborough as the only girls’ high school in the Merrimack Valley.
Low enrollment, high costs, and a lack of nuns, priests, and other religious to staff the schools are common factors behind the mergers and closings. The Sisters of Charity of Nazareth cited those reasons when it shuttered OLN, which operated for 62 years on a former estate near the Stoneham line. A spokeswoman for the Kentucky-based order did not return a phone call seeking comment for this story.
Parents and staff knew they faced a risk when they decided to open a new school during the worst economy since the Great Depression. The Sisters of Charity of Nazareth encouraged students to attend other Catholic schools in the area, such as Bishop Fenwick High School in Peabody and Austin Preparatory School in Reading. The former OLN did not have a large alumnae network to tap for financial backing.
“Nobody gave us a chance,’’ Luna said. “We had nothing but determination, heart, and commitment.’’
They leased the former Hurd School on Cordis Street from the town of Wakefield. The red-brick building had rotting floors and a leaking roof. A parent who is also a contractor got to work quickly, replacing the floors, building office space, and hanging whiteboards in classrooms. The building was set up for wireless Internet. Parents and staff painted the bathrooms over Labor Day weekend. A few days later, the new Naz opened with 56 girls, including 50 from the old school.
“We wanted to stay together,’’ said Angela Luna, 18, who is headed to Parsons The New School of Design in New York City. “We would have gone to school in a cardboard box if we had to.’’
Five teachers from the old school joined the staff. “I wanted to stay with the kids,’’ said Debbie Siegel, the art teacher. “I knew there was a strong commitment to this school. The excitement here permeates the air. You feel it among the students and the faculty.’’
The college prep curriculum is based on the state’s curriculum frameworks. The school is working toward accreditation from the New England Association of Schools and Colleges.
But Nazareth also faces the tough test of trying to increase enrollment and raise money.
The school must have 90 to 100 girls if it is to be viable long-term, Joe Luna said. Like other small Catholic schools, including Pope John XXIII High School in Everett, Nazareth is recruiting foreign students to fill seats. Nazareth now has 15 students from China, who live with local families. Recruiting from Mexico and Spain is also part of the plan. “We definitely see it as a way of increasing our enrollment,’’ Morrison said.
The school is launching its first Annual Fund. Currently, the school’s $1 million operating budget is funded by tuition, which is $12,500. Trustees are scouring for grants and other philanthropic sources. After the school choir performed at the opening of the Radio City Rockettes show in Boston, an anonymous donation of $20,000 arrived in the mail. “It came from someone in the audience who knew a girl that goes here,’’ Morrison said.
“They believed in what we’re doing here.’’