Mia Ruge (blue shirt) is the first Marian Scholar at Divine Savior Holy Angels. (Submitted photo)

Mark and Mary Ruge always knew that they wanted to send their daughter Mia to a Catholic high school just as they’d sent their older sons before her.

But Mia has a mild form of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), and they knew that this would make the task of finding her perfect fit much harder. While she was in middle school, they began to look for schools that could accommodate her unique learning style, and they quickly came up empty. They couldn’t find one Catholic girls school with a special education program in the state of Wisconsin.

The couple went to Divine Savior Holy Angels (DSHA) Principal Dan Quesnell, who had already heard about similar programs, and they advocated for a program to be brought into the school. Mary Anderson, the Director of Marian Scholars at DSHA, said, “All three of them had a passion for this program and worked hard to launch it. We like to say that it all came together by the work of the Holy Spirit, and he used the Ruges and Principal Quesnell to get it done.”

The Ruges loved that the Marian Scholar program works to be inclusive, and includes the student in all aspects of the school’s life. They loved that similar programs had a long history of success in Catholic schools nationwide, with the longest running for more than 20 years in schools in Tennessee and Maryland. DSHA made some adjustments to these programs that would fit for the school.

Their work began before COVID-19 disrupted the world’s plans but, through their hard work and sacrifice, Mia was able to begin the 2020-21 school year as DSHA’s first and currently only Marian Scholar.

Along with Anderson, the Marian Scholar Program at DSHA employs Gretchen Caraher, a school psychologist who has spent years collaborating with teachers in special and regular education classes. “Our first year beginning in the middle of a pandemic has been a challenge,” Caraher said. “But we’re amazed that during such a challenging time Mia has been the brightest light we could have hoped for. She’s flourishing.”

Though they hope to build the program at DSHA to eight girls, with two in each class, their challenge is getting the word out about a program that has the potential to change the lives of so many across the archdiocese.

Juniors and seniors volunteer to be part of the peer mentor program and are there to support Mia in the classroom, a model quite different from public schools that employ paid adults to work with the students.

“We think it changes everything,” Anderson said. “Mia is able to grow in friendships and be guided by girls who she can look up to, and the students who get to work with her adore learning from her resilience and patience.”

In the months since Mia has begun high school, in a year that looks so different from any we’ve seen before, she has embraced every challenge with grace. She’s led all-school prayer and has deepened her love of music and English.

“I love it here,” Mia said. “I love my friends and my teachers; it’s a great place to be.”

To learn more about the Marian Scholar Program at DSHA visit: https://www.dsha.info/academics/marian-scholars-program.