OAK CREEK — Amanda Fischer, a 1997 graduate of St. Matthew Catholic School in Oak Creek, fondly reminisced on her eight years at the school — eight years filled with field days, Mardi Gras celebrations, Christmas plays, Mr. (John) Keane’s Jeopardy Fridays and Mrs. (Darlene) Brindowski’s homemade lunches.
Twenty years later, Fischer made the easy choice to send her two small children to St. Matthew to share in the same traditions she experienced and to grow in the Catholic faith.
Jackie Kaczynski, parent to two boys who attend St. Matthew and a member of the school advisory committee, noticed that Fischer was not the only St. Matthew graduate to bring her own children to the school. About a dozen alumni are parents of current students, she estimated. Parents and grandparents now watch their own children and grandchildren walk the same halls, and graduates return to the school as teachers.
This intergenerational community that St. Matthew has built strengthens the Christian community that the school hopes to teach, she believes.
“It speaks volumes to the kind of school and the kind of church we have,” Kaczynski said.
Kelly Stefanich, second year principal of St. Matthew, is familiar with the community built at the school, having taught at St. Matthew since 2004. The alumni network is strong, she said with graduates keeping in touch via Facebook pages, doing activities together and bringing their own children to the school.
This intergenerational success St. Matthew has seen is a testament to the education the school provides – in the teachers, staff members and learning environment fostered through many years, she said.
“(The parents) have had such a strong instruction in faith that has created that foundation for them in life,” Stefanich said. “The impact their education had on them, they want for their own children.”
Kelly Karolewicz, a 1991 graduate of St. Matthew, described the positive experience she received in her education, Christian faith and friendships. Looking back on her time at the school, she said, “I think it was the perfect combination of high academic standards, discipline, nurturing and community.”
Karolewicz wanted this same experience and foundation in Catholic faith for her now fifth grade son Bennett, who attends the school. Seeing other graduates like herself send their own children to St. Matthew is what Karolewicz calls, “a testament to the foundation of faith we received there.”
St. Matthew prides itself on service, education and religion, Stefanich said. The environment the school creates enables success in these three areas and builds that strong sense of community, which she believes is St. Matthew’s greatest strength.
Part of that community is built by the longevity of teachers and staff members.
“The reputation of the teachers is one of the main reasons I chose to send my boys there,” Fischer said. “They are compassionate, kind teachers that can have fun but know how to discipline when they need to.”
Keane, a former eighth grade teacher, was one such educator who left an impact on many students.
Along with teaching social studies, Keane, who recently retired after 40 years at the school, also hosted intramural sports, the annual field day and the school’s version of “Jeopardy” on Fridays.
Karolewicz’s favorite subject was social studies taught by Keane. “He made anything and everything exciting and fun,” she said. “I’m quite certain I’ve never known anyone to love their job the way he did. It showed every day in the classroom.”
Brindowski, the school cook for many years, is another staff member who created the unique, nurturing environment at St. Matthew.
Ann Schmidt, 1991 graduate and mother to two boys at the school, said that whenever alumni get together, probably one of the first things they talk about is the homecooked lunches.
“It was something we took for granted when we were there,” Schmidt said, reminiscing about her favorite lunch – the pizza burger.
With such a strong alumni network, the traditions that are carried on hold added value to those who graduated from the school. Because of this, St. Matthew started hosting adult versions of these traditions including an adult field day and “Jeopardy” night, which, as Schmidt said, “makes you feel like a kid again.”
The traditions, Schmidt said are important, “because so much of it shows the teamwork, the collaboration and the family-feeling between the teachers and students and parents.”
Being active in the school community, now as a parent, has given Schmidt the sense of gratitude and appreciation for her parents’ decision to send her to St. Matthew. They remain active at the school, this time for their grandchildren.
With all the traditions rooted into St. Matthew, the most important one is the tradition of the Catholic faith instilled in the students, the parents agreed. For alumni returning to the school as parents, this foundation in religion was the reason to send their children to a Catholic school.
“Of course, I want my kids to be good writers, be good at math and reading, but the thing I want most for my kids is for them to be good, kind, respectful people,” Fischer said. “This is something I feel they are able to get at a Catholic school. They learn the basic studies, but they also learn what it means to be a Christian and that, I think is one of the most valuable skill sets they can learn and take with them as they get older.”
Schmidt said it was important to know her children were learning in an environment that allowed them to pray and learn about Jesus.
“Catholic education is important because it emphasizes compassion and service to others, builds strong character and provides a sense of community,” Karolewicz added.
St. Matthew has made some changes to the school since many of the parents attended, but they said these changes have only strengthened the values of Catholic education which Karolewicz discussed.
There is an even stronger connection between the grade levels, something already established through the addition of a buddy system. The school added a kindergarten program, and Karolewicz also noted that there is increased interaction between the students and St. Matthew’s pastor, Fr. Patrick O’Loughlin.
“He strolls the hallways on most days wearing jeans and a T-shirt,” she said. “The kids like the fact that he’s approachable and that he always participates in school events.”
Despite the changes, the sense of comfort when entering St. Matthew remains for the alumni. Karolewicz said returning to the classroom as a parent feels like home.
Schmidt said she had new emotions coming back to St. Matthew, but the main one was thankfulness.
“I have gratitude for everything I gained because when I was a student there and much younger, I didn’t realize truly what an important role those eight years would play down the road for me,” Schmidt said.