Lisa Gehl and Caryn Papenthien remember their first day of eighth grade in 1990. Not only was it a turning point for their school careers, it was a milestone for Catholic education in Waukesha.
That school year marked the beginning of the Waukesha Catholic School System, a joint effort among the city’s four parishes: St. John Neumann, St. Joseph, St. Mary and St. William. The system includes St. Joseph Middle School for all Waukesha Catholic students in grades six through eight, and two campuses for teaching K4 through fifth grade, located at St. Mary and St. William.
Before the 1990-91 school year, St. Joseph, St. Mary and St. William operated separate schools for children in kindergarten through eighth grade. St. John Neumann parish did not have a school.
Gehl and Papenthien had been attending St. Mary, but on that memorable day, they walked into the school system’s newly created middle school in downtown Waukesha.
“It was scary, like any change,” Gehl recalled.
“All of a sudden you were leaving the school you’d been at for seven years,” Papenthien said. “It turned out to be a positive change though. It was an introduction to the way high school would be.”
The two were part of Waukesha Catholic’s first graduating class and went to Catholic Memorial High School in Waukesha.
Today, both women have their children enrolled in the Waukesha Catholic School System.
New model implemented
Twenty years ago, Waukesha Catholic’s consolidation model was new for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.
“In the 1980s, the pastors at the four Waukesha parishes realized we were losing students,” said Mary Kuemmel, a fifth-grade teacher at St. Mary, who was a member of the task force that worked on the consolidation from 1988 to 1990. She had a child attending St. Mary at the time, but was not teaching then.
School Sister of St. Francis Toni Gradisnik was principal of St. William from 1989 to 2000. She recalled that enrollment declines were creating small sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade classes in the late 1980s.
The task force concluded that the best way to continue offering a quality, Catholic education would be to form a united school system with two elementary schools and one middle school. “This way, more could be offered to the middle school students. It was a way to better prepare them for high school,” Kuemmel said.
For example, it was decided to begin offering three foreign languages at the middle school. Teachers specializing in art and music were hired. Also, students had more opportunities to participate in extracurricular activities and athletics.
St. Joseph was selected for the middle school because of its location about halfway between the St. Mary and St. William campuses.
“It was a long, hard road to get to consolidation,” Kuemmel said. “There were many people with strong feelings about keeping the schools run separately.”
Parents who opposed the consolidation had various concerns, she said. Some parents wanted the older children to stay in the parish school to be with younger siblings; some disliked the move to St. Joseph because it was an older facility; others were upset because the middle school location was too far or seemed unsafe for their children to walk to school.
However, when parents were surveyed to see if they would be willing to send their children to a consolidated system, a majority indicated that they would, Kuemmel recalled.
Less than a year to implement changes
“The decision to consolidate was passed in late 1989, and we had to get the new, united system running for the 1990-91 school year,” she said.
That meant less than a year for pastors, principals, parents and staff members to implement a host of changes at the three campuses.
“There was a lot of planning with many late nights of working,” Sr. Toni said. “Some people were worried. But there was a dynamic energy; the four parishes came together and decided together is better.”
Nevertheless, together meant many changes.
Curriculum needed to be developed and all the teachers were required to reapply for jobs. A new home and school association comprised of members from the four parishes needed to be established. Bus transportation had to be arranged and new uniforms selected. Even the move of desks and chairs among the three campuses needed careful planning, Sr. Toni remembered.
“Communication was key. As principals, we tried to be very responsive to parents’ questions,” she said.
“After the decision passed, we tried our best to be positive about the transition,” Kuemmel explained. Social events were held at the different campuses for parents to get to know one another. Tours of St. Joseph were given. Tryouts for athletics brought the students together, too.
“Parents and staff were committed to bring forth something new, and that commitment is showing 20 years later,” Sr. Toni noted.
Although Kuemmel said there were “growing pains” in the beginning years, she believes that people now see the consolidation as a good decision.
“A plus is that parishioners from the four parishes have gotten to know each other,” she added.
Waukesha Catholic today
“The consolidation is important to our success,” said Carolyn Caruso, director for the Waukesha Catholic School System. “The parents view us as one. Our parents see that it really does work to share resources; they see the value of collaboration. All four parishes in Waukesha support the school system, so families can belong to the parish of their choice and attend any one of our campuses.”
There are busing boundaries for each campus, however, so if the student lives outside those boundaries, the parents provide their own transportation.
Caruso said that Waukesha Catholic’s enrollment increased throughout the first decade. In 1990/1991, enrollment was 722 students and it peaked at 837 students in the 2000/2001 school year.
“After that peak, we had a slow decline in enrollments over the years; not any dramatic declines,” she said. Current enrollment is 684 students; the middle school has had a slight increase in enrollment recently.
In addition to the support of the parents, Caruso highlights the work of the Waukesha Catholic teachers. “They fully understand our mission to provide the best quality Catholic education, so our students go into the future with good values,” Caruso said. “We often hear from students that they are more prepared than the other students when they start high school. We hear this from the high school teachers too.”
Caruso believes that having a vision and strategic outlook are essential. She also cited the advancement director’s significant role in Waukesha Catholic’s success, noting that development could not be done at the current level when the schools were run separately.
Parents value Catholic education
Twenty years ago, Gehl and Papenthien wondered what it would be like to attend a middle school with students they didn’t know. Today, they appreciate the education they received through Waukesha’s Catholic schools.
Papenthien said she values her Catholic education and that is why she enrolled her daughters in the school system. Vanessa, a sophomore at Catholic Memorial, attended St. Mary and St. Joseph. Brianna is in fifth grade at St. Mary and will attend St. Joseph next year.
“There’s a sense of community at each campus,” Papenthien said. “The schools have a solid curriculum and the students are given every opportunity to excel.”
“I chose to send my children to Waukesha Catholic because I know they will get exposure to Catholic religion and good academics,” Gehl said.
Her children, Lexi, a kindergartener, and Matt, a second-grader, attend the St. Mary campus; another son, Eric, will join them in fall when he begins K4.
“I’m definitely planning that they will go to St. Joe’s for middle school,” Gehl added.