With Wauwatosa Catholic School about to begin its fourth semester, administrator Dean Weyer is pleased with the progress of the institution, forged through the 2011 merger of the former St. Bernard and St. Pius X Elementary Schools.
Weyer, administrative services director for Wauwatosa Catholic and its two sponsor parishes, said the school has been a positive undertaking “both environment-wise and financially for the parishes.”
He noted that enrollment is up 25 pupils – to 230 – this school year and is expected to increase again for the 2013-14 academic year. Pupils come from 22 zip codes to attend grades K3-8 in the former St. Bernard School building, 1500 Wauwatosa Ave.
In a mid-January interview with your Catholic Herald, Weyer, principal Heidi Hernandez and program coordinator Karen Scharrer-Erickson, addressed Wauwatosa Catholic’s strong points.
The trio mentioned the youthful, energetic faculty – Hernandez, for example, turned 35 the day of the interview and was serenaded with “Happy Birthday” by a group of fourth graders during this reporter’s visit – the school’s Catholic identity, fostered by such events as weekly Masses for the student body; comparatively small classes; and courses in art, music and physical education, subjects known in the educational field as “specials” and not universally available in private schools.
Additionally – and “high on the list,” in Weyer’s words – there’s the International Baccalaureate (IB) program. Making the Wauwatosa school Wisconsin’s first Catholic IB elementary school was the idea of Julia D’Amato, principal at Wauwatosa Catholic its first year before she became principal of Milwaukee’s St. Anthony High School.
D’Amato recruited Scharrer-Erickson, a newly retired Milwaukee Public Schools IB coordinator, to assume a similar position at Wauwatosa Catholic.
“I was retired for 12 hours,” Scharrer-Erickson said with a laugh.
IB is an international organization headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland, whose programs exist in nearly 3,500 schools in 141 countries. Some 300 of the 3,500 are IB Primary Years Program (PYP) schools in the United States, as Wauwatosa Catholic hopes to become; only a handful are in Wisconsin.
IB pupils “learn to be knowledgeable, open-minded and reflective and to have inquiring minds. They are immersed in student-centered, hands-on activities that help them take an active role in their education,” according to material provided by the International Baccalaureate program.
This philosophy (complements) the Wauwatosa school’s Catholic faith and desire to have its students become caring, principled individuals who love and serve others, according to Weyer.
IB schools attempt to mold their students into “thinkers, communicators (and) risk-takers” who are “balanced” in their approach to life.
The foregoing attributes form what is known as the IB learner profile.
“That’s where we truly mesh with our Catholic identity,” Weyer said in the interview. IB, whose areas of emphasis include the arts, foreign language and global awareness, “encourages the children to develop their higher-level thinking skills, their personal attributes and, through the use and development of the learner profile, it encourages our students to become lifelong learners and truly internationally minded,” Scharrer-Erickson said.
Hernandez added that the learner profile is “taught by modeling, by taking something that’s already there and bringing it to real life in a global way.”
Profile attributes dovetail with academic instruction.
At Wauwatosa Catholic, “student-centered, hands-on activities” have included kindergartners researching animals of their choosing and then compiling books about them; second graders learning about consumption and demand by producing and marketing T-shirts, keepsake boxes and other items; and fourth graders selecting saints, or other paragons, to study in conjunction with a unit on morality.
“The kids kind of guide where we’re going,” noted Scharrer-Erickson. “The teacher is … not the spewer of knowledge.”
Said Hernandez, “You’re teaching a child to be an advocate for their own learning.”
Wauwatosa Catholic has been designated a candidate school, the second of four phases en route to IB authorization. A detailed authorization application document is being readied and will be studied by IB representatives, who then will make a three-day “authorization visit” to Wauwatosa Catholic during the 2013-14 school year.
“An IB school has to commit to a rigorous education and they will test us on that,” Scharrer-Erickson said.
The quest for IB status could then culminate with the team of visitors deciding to “recommend authorization” of Wauwatosa Catholic as a PYP (K3 through fifth grade) school. The quest process would be revisited as Middle Years Program (MYP) sanction is sought from the IB for the school’s upper three grades.
Although grades six through eight are not involved in the authorization process, Wauwatosa Catholic’s teachers in those grades are, like their PYP counterparts, employing the international program’s philosophy in their instruction. All of the approximately 20 faculty members have undergone formal training in the method.
“Oh, my gosh, yes,” Scharrer-Erickson exclaimed when asked if the educators have welcomed IB involvement. “It’s exciting working with them.”
Kathleen Cepelka, superintendent of archdiocesan schools reportedly has encouraged Wauwatosa Catholic’s IB quest – no doubt spurred by her connection, while principal of Waukesha’s Catholic Memorial High School, with the IB’s secondary school-level Diploma Program (DP).