For a lot of students who are approaching their eighth grade graduation, the process of selecting a high school can be daunting — overwhelming, even.

Not so for Dr. Grace Kessler, PT, DPT. In fact, for Kessler, it was a decision that was made even before junior high began. As she finished up sixth grade at St. Mary Parish School (now part of the All Saints school system), she knew that her future was at St. Joseph Catholic Academy (SJCA). At the time, the school served students in grades seven through 12; it has since expanded to include preschool and elementary school.

It was a transition that was “seamless,” said Kessler. Her mother and other family members before her were St. Joseph graduates. “It was where I wanted to be.”

In her four years of high school at SJCA, Kessler said she found an environment of support, fellowship and virtue that laid the groundwork for the life and career she enjoys today as a physical therapist in the St. Louis area.

“Having those experiences in high school ultimately allowed me to make better decisions for my future,” she said.

A diverse menu of extracurricular activities, a model of personalized instruction and genuine community are all hallmarks of a Catholic high school education in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, according to data compiled from a recent research study of Catholic high school graduates.

The study’s conclusions suggest that Kessler’s experience at SJCA is typical of many graduates of the Archdiocese’s 16 high schools. Catholic high school respondents were 22 percent more likely to attend college immediately following high school graduation and 29 percent more likely to earn a bachelor’s, master’s or Ph.D/advanced degree, as Kessler did at St. Louis University. Catholic high school graduates were also more likely to develop values like compassion, integrity and respect.

Grace Kessler’s story

Kessler began her freshman year at SJCA in 2009 and quickly became involved in volleyball and music, singing in choir, serving as cantor at Masses and performing in musical theater productions. The smaller class sizes offered by the school meant more meaningful interaction with her teachers and fellow students, she said.

“You get to know everyone a little better,” she said. “I had the ability to be involved in tons of different things and meet tons of different people and really develop relationships with people not only in my graduating class, but really, with all ages. To this day, I still have relationships with people who did not necessarily graduate with me.”

Reflecting on her time at SJCA, what Kessler remembers most is the “Lancer Value system” — spirituality, humility, generosity, respect, acceptance, integrity, accountability and commitment. These are standards by which staff and students alike are expected to abide, and that Kessler said permeated the academic curriculum and broader culture at SJCA.

“It was the idea that you help one another and you really are able to volunteer in your community and put others’ needs before your own,” she said. “Those values weren’t just in faith and religion classes, but they were kind of instilled throughout your whole time there.”

In keeping with the Lancer value system, service was also a hallmark of her experience at SJCA, said Kessler. “We had a course I took senior year dedicated to service in the community; we went out every day and went to different facilities and schools (to serve others),” she said.

Following her graduation from SJCA in 2012, Kessler attended St. Louis University, where she studied physical therapy, earning her doctorate in 2018. Her interest in human science was piqued back at SJCA in Mike Mroz’s advanced honors anatomy class.

“That was my favorite class,” she said.

She is now a physical therapist with Concentra Occupational Health, which has more than 500 locations in 44 states, and she still keeps in close contact with many of her friends from SJCA and makes it back to her alma mater for school events when she is back home in Kenosha.

“The smaller class sizes, the increased opportunity for activities — you really get exposure to so many different things that probably wouldn’t be the case at so many other schools,” she said. “The things I was able to see and participate in led me on this path of where I ended up today.”