When it was time for Michelle and Tom Pederson to send their children to school, neither considered sending them anywhere but St. Mary Grade School in Burlington. The three children are the fifth generation on Michelle’s (Smetana) side to attend St. Mary and Catholic Central High School. 

01-19-12-CHN-15Kindergarten students, left to right, Matthew Schultz, Brody Vos and Dylan Siemers work in a computer lab on Thursday, Jan. 19 at Catholic Central High School in Burlington. (Catholic Herald photos by Allen Fredrickson)“It was never really a choice where I was going to attend school,” said Michelle. “I guess my parents, grandparents and great-grandparents made that choice for me. They taught me to love St. Mary’s, and how important it is to support the church and school. It was an easy decision for me to send my kids here because I had attended both schools and I know how special they were to me. The religious foundation, of course, is the most important reason.”

Academics, extra-curriculars encouraged

With teachers and staff earning less than their public school counterparts, one might assume that SMS or CC is lacking in programs to handle students needing extra assistance. However, with a closer teacher student ratio, students are not only handling the work load, they are thriving.

“Our oldest daughter, Mikayla, is 14 and a freshman at CC. Nothing comes easy to her, and she has to work hard at everything she does,” said Michelle. “We were very concerned that the challenging workload and courses at CC would overwhelm her, but were reassured by other parents that the staff would do everything they could to help her. Now, as we finish the first semester of the year, this was confirmed. The teachers and staff really care about each and every student.”

The school encourages not only academic excellence, but also extra-curricular activities, such as music, sports, theater and forensics.

“Mikayla was on the freshman volleyball team this year and is planning on playing softball this spring – two opportunities I am sure that she may not have even qualified to participate in the public schools,” said Michelle.

For the couple’s younger daughters, Sara, 13, and Anna, 7, St. Mary Grade School prepares them to apply their homework for test preparation, as well as other problem solving tasks they encounter. In addition, the school encourages outreach to the community.

“These things include visits to the nursing home, raising supplies and money for charities, and helping out at Love Inc.,” said Michelle. “What I didn’t realize about both schools, until my daughters came here, was how much the students that wanted to be, or needed to be challenged, were offered such opportunities. This is true from kindergarten through 12th grade.”

Campus features grade, high schools

In a city of approximately 10,000 residents, it is unusual to find two thriving Catholic grade schools – St. Charles Borromeo with an enrollment of 199 students and St. Mary with 343 students — and one Catholic high school 01-19-12-CHN-25Sixth grade student Stephanie Gregg works on a Spanish lesson at St. Mary Elementary School on Thursday, Jan. 19, at one of two thriving Catholic grade schools in Burlington. The community is also home to St. Charles School. More photos can be viewed at http://photos.chnonline.org. (Catholic Herald photos by Allen Fredrickson)with an enrollment of 150. Even more unusual is the PreK-12 campus, which Immaculate Conception Parish is nestled between St. Mary Grade School and Catholic Central High School. 

Michelle and Tom believe that sending their children to a Catholic school is an investment in their children’s future, despite the higher price tag. However, thanks to a generous benefactor, many students are able to utilize the annual Rewald Scholarship program to offset tuition costs.

“They offer a monthly payment program at both SMS and CC,” said Michelle. “Catholic Central also has other scholarships available, especially to incoming freshmen. The two things that really make this tuition affordable are the generosity of our parishes and the dedication of the staff.”

Solid sacramental community evident

Permeating the entire educational structure from age 3 through 18 is a solid sacramental community, one that provides a natural opportunity to reinforce the Catholic faith perspective in school, extra-curricular activities, home or in commercial establishments. Regular prayer, liturgy, faith formation, rosary and theology classes are part of daily school life.

According to SMS principal, Loretta Jackson, the mission to pray, teach and serve is sincere.

“We are part of a proud Catholic community based on family traditions of supporting our faith through education,” she said. “We have great traditions of volunteering, donations, praying and living. The commitment on the parts of those in our community has afforded us many wish list items that include, but are not limited to, various technological advances.”

Each student in the grade school has a buddy in another grade to study, play with and work on service projects. For Catholic Schools Week, the buddies will join for a service project one day and will be together the next day for an all-school “Peace” Bingo to complement this year’s theme, “Be a builder of Peace.”

“The students love developing relationships with older students,” said Jackson. “They high-five each other and stop by to say ‘hi’ during lunch. They also get excited to see them at Mass on Sunday. We love it.”

United campus allows for sharing resources

According to Jackson, one of the greatest benefits is the united campus, combining the pre-school, grade school and high school. Bringing the grades onto one location allows for the sharing of resources, facilities and personnel.

“Some of this is done formally through things like our middle school students going to CC for technology and being taught by the instructor there, a shared band instructor and transportation for some of our students by CC buses,” she said. “Sometimes there are things like high school students helping in our classrooms, our students traveling to watch the CC championships, or the preschoolers attending Mass with the grade school, or the grade school and high school celebrating together. We have a strong administrative team that works together for the good of all our students here on campus.”

The emphasis on a challenging curriculum is evident in that 99 percent of students graduate from CC and of those, 98 percent go on to higher education. According to CC development director Georgean Selburg, students have attended prestigious universities and colleges such as Harvard, Marquette, Princeton, Purdue, UW-Madison, Washington and Yale.

“Our students have also been appointed to West Point and the U.S. Naval Academy,” she said. “Our school is the perfect place to learn and grow with the average class size being 14. Although our tuition is $7,670 or $6,990 for a student belonging to a member parish, the amount of money earned through senior scholarships more than helps finance costs. Over the past three years, 77 percent received nearly $3 million in scholarships.”

Students come from out of state

In fact, the high educational standards are one of several reasons Lake Villa, Ill., residents Terry and Karen Schwenn travel to Burlington each day to ensure their oldest son, Stephen, a sophomore, receives the best in Catholic education.

“Our family chose CC for many reasons,” said Karen. “One that stands out the most for me is the family atmosphere and sense of caring I received from the staff and families. From the moment we took interest in the school, we were led with a smile and a helping hand.”

Choosing CC was an extension to the Catholic life already practiced at home, and the Schwenns said they are confident Stephen is surrounded with people who care for and about him, and will receive an education concurrent with their values.

“We provide Catholic education to our children from preschool to high school,” said Karen. “Catholic education is faith-based with emphasis on how we want our sons and daughters to treat others, as well as to know how others should treat them.”

An overall sense of fairness in the disciplining of students attracted Kathy and Scot Ferguson to St. Mary Grade School after a disappointing few years in the public school system. As the parents of 12-year-old Makenzie and 8-year-old Audra, the couple was disenchanted with the popular concept of disciplining an entire class for the problems of a few.

“We felt our daughters were losing valuable instruction time because of all the time wasted on discipline,” said Kathy. “At St. Mary’s, we found the staff has a professional and firm approach to discipline, where bullying is not tolerated and all of the students are not serving the consequences for the misbehavior of one or two students. The students respect the staff and the staff respects the students.”

When their daughters attended public school, topics such as faith and God were taboo, but they said attending St. Mary has allowed both to grow closer to God at home and church because they are encouraged in their faith.

“St. Mary’s is such a nurturing environment for Makenzie and Audra because you can feel the love of God in those classrooms and in that school,” said Kathy. “The staff uses their experiences and faith to guide the students and nurture them. This makes them feel accepted, loved and safe at school.”

Parents wanted ‘faith-filled education’

As long time members of Immaculate Conception Parish, Drs. Sharon and Timothy Smith, both dentists, wanted their four daughters to enjoy the same benefits of Catholic education as they had while growing up.

“We wanted their education to be faith-filled like ours and to pass that gift on to our children,” said Sharon. “They have so many opportunities here such as student government, clubs, musicals and sports and that is one of the many things that is so nice about this school.”

The couple’s daughter, Maggie, is a junior, while the older three attend college, one on a volleyball scholarship to Colorado State. Despite the small school atmosphere, CC seems to prepare its students for life on larger campuses and living in bigger cities.

“One of our daughters went through four years at Madison and is now at Marquette Dental School. We thought going from this small school to Madison would be intimidating, but on the contrary, it seemed almost empowering to her,” said Sharon. “She learned all sorts of time management skills and was pretty well prepared for life. I was just amazed and our other daughters have had similar experiences.”

Topper athletics is tops

Greg Groth, principal of Catholic Central, is also a parent, proud of the school’s award winning sports department. His son participated in the 2001 basketball state championship team.

“Since 2001, we have had 14 state titles in five different sports,” he said. “Our coaches are strong in their faith and the kids want to come here because of our success.”

Athletic director Eric Henderson is proud of the number of state championships that the school has won since joining the WIAA in 2000, but is equally proud of how the school accomplished those achievements the past 12 years.

“We have tremendous student athletes, coaches and families who care about the values that their children leave CC with,” said Henderson. “I believe the commitment and dedication to excellence by our student athletes and their families are second to none. It is amazing the amount of students I see working in the weight room, working on their footwork, and shooting baskets when I get to school at 6:30 every morning. There is a sense of pride in Topper athletics that has provided a tremendous example of what it takes to be successful from generation to generation.”

As principal, Groth is credited with bringing CC to a higher standard of education, but he is quick to point to his staff and their visions for the school’s success.

“I have not done anything special,” he said. “We have put together a staff that believes in our vision to be a great Catholic high school with outstanding athletic teams. Our vision has no boundaries and knows no limits. This is a special place. It is a privilege to work here with these kids and our staff. Our member parish priests and principals have also done an awesome job promoting the advantages of kids staying in the Catholic schools system.”