WATERVILLE — Mount Merici Academy is responding to increased enrollment demand by expanding to add seventh- and eighth-grade classes to the private Catholic elementary school.

Mount Merici, at 152 Western Ave., now serves children in pre-kindergarten through sixth grade. The seventh-grade class will open in the fall, for the 2014-15 school year; and the eighth grade will open the following school year.

The recent expansion plans were prompted by demand from students currently enrolled at the school, and their parents, as well as interest from outside the school, according to Principal Sue Cote and teacher Donna Russo.

“It is so exciting,” Cote said Wednesday. “This has been a dream forever. Just to think we’re at the point where we can do it is so exciting.”

Two hundred students now are enrolled in the school, which employs 15 classroom teachers.

Cote said expansion startup costs are estimated at $20,000 for the seventh grade and another $20,000 for the eighth grade. In addition, there will be costs for teacher pay, additional financial aid for students and equipping classrooms with smart boards, she said. About a dozen students, including current Mount Merici sixth-graders, already have signed up for the new seventh grade and the class can accommodate a maximum of 25 students, which also is the maximum for other classes, according to Russo.

The school plans to hire at least one new teacher as part of the seventh-grade expansion and probably will hire another for the eighth grade, she said. Eventually, a wing of the school will be dedicated to sixth, seventh and eighth grades, where teachers will team-teach in a subject-based format, according to Russo.

Russo, who is in her 31st year of teaching at the school, is leading plans for development of the seventh grade. The expansion will not require a physical addition to the school; rather, current space in the building will be used for the new grades, Russo said. A French classroom, for instance, will become the new sixth-grade classroom this fall, the current sixth-grade room will become the seventh grade, and the following year, the computer laboratory will be converted to an eighth-grade classroom, according to Russo. The computer laboratory will become movable.

The decision to expand followed the launching of feasibility studies, development of a five-year strategic plan, and approval from the school’s Board of Directors, according to Cote. “Our priority was to not impact what we have already,” she said.

She said that over the last several years, younger parents visited the school and were looking for one that could enroll their children from nursery school through grade 8.

“We’ve always wanted it also but just (weren’t) in a position to do it until now,” Cote said.

Assistant Principal Victoria Duguay said in a news release from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland that a student identified as Lyndsie prayed for the school to have seventh and eighth grades.

“When Lyndsie heard the news, she screamed,” Duguay said. “We had an open house for new families who are considering the enrollment of their children. Needless to say, Lyndsie was one of our student ambassadors at the open house.”

Accredited by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, Mount Merici in 2011 celebrated its 100th anniversary in Waterville. The Ursuline ministry started in Maine in 1888 when six Ursuline sisters volunteered to come to the city at the request of the Rev. Narcisse Charland, according to the school’s website. He was director of the parish in Waterville, which was home to about 4,000 Catholics, the majority of whom were natives of Canada.

Mount Merici is the only Ursuline school in Maine and is unique in the Portland Diocese in that it is governed by a layperson Board of Directors under the guidance of the Ursuline Sisters of the Northeast Province, according to the school website. Mount Merici is fully administered and staffed by a lay principal and a state-certified faculty.

Mount Merici years ago was a boarding high school but changed in the early 1970s to serve children in kindergarten through grade 8. It remained that way for about a decade, then changed to a kindergarten-through-grade 6 school in the early 1980s. After that, the school added pre-kindergarten and nursery.

Now students ages 4 through 12 attend Mount Merici from communities including Waterville, Augusta, Oakland, Winslow, Madison, Norridgewock, Sidney, Skowhegan, China and Belgrade.

About 60 percent of the students are Catholic; the remainder of the students include Protestants, Muslims, Jews and those who practice no religion, according to Russo. The school’s Ursuline Serviam mission is to nurture the whole child in body, mind and spirit, Russo said.

“I think it’s important for kids to understand many different faiths and respect all faiths and understand the importance of tolerance in life, and we talk about that a lot,” she said. “I think that’s critical.”

Tuition for the 2014-15 school year will be $4,400 for students in kindergarten through grade seven and $3,100 for pre-kindergarten students, who are enrolled a half-day, Cote said. Not all students pay the full amount, she said.

“We give out needs-based scholarships,” Cote said. “Last year we gave out $50,000, and we will give out $50,000 this year.”

Russo is a sixth-grade teacher but will teach primarily seventh grade next year, she said. She also will continue in her roles as physical education teacher and athletic director, as well as help students with service work. The students volunteer at Sacred Heart Soup Kitchen, Spectrum Generations Muskie Center, Greater Waterville Area Food Bank and other places. Russo plans also to coordinate life sports, in which students will do outside activities such as cross country skiing, hiking and kayaking.

“A great source of affirmation concerning this decision (to expand) has come from many of our former students, ranging from 13-year-olds to 40-year olds who have commented, ‘I wish they would have had this for us when we were there,’” Russo said. “I am encouraged by their perspectives and look forward to the many learning experiences that we will provide for our older students, both in and out of the classroom.”

Russo gives tours of the school to prospective students and their parents, and children may come and spend a day in classes, she said.

St. John Regional Catholic School in neighboring Winslow added a sixth grade back into its school four years ago, highlighting the school’s effort to rebound following previous years of declining enrollment. It previously had offered classes in kindergarten through grade 8.

Dave Guthro, communications director for the Portland Diocese, said Wednesday that the mission of Catholic schools is create an environment in which faith is preserved and nourished while students are encouraged to excel academically and with service to community.

On Mount Merici’s plan to expand, Guthro said, “It is a wonderful development any time increased interest inspires a Catholic school in Maine to expand and add opportunities for students and their families.”

Amy Calder — 861-9247

acalder@centralmaine.com Twitter: @AmyCalder17