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Kelly: Duchesne Academy’s new lights, enrollment gains enhance role as a neighborhood anchor

Kelly: Duchesne Academy’s new lights, enrollment gains enhance role as a neighborhood anchor

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At Duchesne Academy of the Sacred Heart, things are looking bright.

That’s because the exterior of the 327-student, all-girls high school has been professionally illuminated at night — a gift from Scott and Cindy Heider, whose daughter will be a junior.

“Duchesne is part of the midtown area’s success story,” said Meg Huerter Brudney, head of school, “and the new lighting only enhances the school’s presence in this historic neighborhood.”

With LED fixtures installed by McKay Landscape Lighting, she said, the school is reducing its energy consumption and will save $435 a year. The lighting, she added, will enhance the beauty and security of the “majestic” school.

Founded in 1881, Duchesne sits at 36th and Burt Streets, just west of downtown.

It was rebuilt after a direct hit from the 1913 Easter tornado, and a major classroom addition was completed in 1930.

Besides the high school, the Religious of the Sacred Heart for many years operated Duchesne College, which closed in 1968.

In 1966 the nuns acquired 40 acres just east of the Westroads Mall and for years thought about building a new high school there. The city’s population was growing westward.

But in the mid-1980s, recalled Sister Shirley Miller, the school’s principal at the time, the board of trustees decided Duchesne should stay put.

Four-year enrollment, though, was low, at times about 150. Then, starting in the mid-1990s, the number of students began sharply increasing under Sheila Haggas, head of school for 20 years until she retired in 2015.

Brudney said the college-preparatory school has reached its preferred limit and regrettably must turn away some applicants.

Nuns no longer teach or work at the school, but it continues to operate under the religious order’s values and is one of 24 schools in the Sacred Heart network in the U.S. and Canada. About 45 percent of Duchesne students qualify for scholarships or need-based financial aid.

The school is named for Philippine Duchesne (pronounced Du-SHENN), a French nun who came to America to teach Indians and died in 1852. In 1988, Pope John Paul II canonized her a saint of the Catholic Church.

Sister Miller, now director of mission advancement for the Society of the Sacred Heart, lives in St. Louis but serves on Duchesne’s board.

Though the school decided more than three decades ago against moving west, she said the land acquisition in 1966 proved to be a great investment. The school sold off the 40 acres in chunks of 10, 20 and 10 acres, the last in 1993.

Brudney said the school is pleased to remain an anchor of midtown. The area includes Mutual of Omaha, Midtown Crossing, the Blackstone District, Joslyn Castle, St. Cecilia Cathedral and the University of Nebraska Medical Center — and lots of neighborhood homes.

The term “midtown” sometimes confuses newcomers — the area is surely in the eastern part of Omaha. But it’s a historical name, dating back more than a century, and it remains even though the middle of the town is now several miles to the west.

The student body comes from far beyond midtown — they live in 38 ZIP codes, and as far away as Gretna, Elkhorn, Plattsmouth and Blair.

Brudney, student body president at Duchesne in the class of 1983, lived and worked in Minnesota for years before returning two years ago to lead her alma mater.

She is pleased that the old school stayed at its original site. About $20 million, she said, has gone into improvements in the past two decades.

With the school now in the spotlight, literally, she hopes Duchesne “will continue to be a guiding light in a neighborhood with deep roots in the city of Omaha.”, 402-444-1132

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