St. Mary Spring’s Academy students in Greg Zimmer’s physical science class measure water temperature, fish length, the number of fish, oxygen levels and other statistics for a trout project funded by the GIFTS (Grant Initiatives for Today’s Students) program of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. (Photo by Kathleen McGillis Drayna)

Greg Zimmer had a boatload of problems after he spent a personal “shoestring budget” to set up a small brook trout project in his classroom last year.

A high school science teacher at St. Mary’s Springs Academy, Zimmer and his class struggled with poor equipment that broke down and watched 95 percent of the Class of 2022 school of fish die.

Zimmer, who could see that his students were hooked on the hands-on learning opportunity, shared his disappointment with High School Principal Eamonn O’Keeffe.

O’Keeffe knew this was no fish story and recognized the creative effort as an educational innovation — one of the four categories of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee GIFTS grant program.

St. Mary’s Springs applied for a 2022-23 grant to buy better equipment, and it was one of 28 schools of the 35 that applied that netted a grant. Thirteen schools received $10,000 grants and 15 received $5,000 grants.

“The grant is making a huge impact on the lives of our students. I think having this much-better equipment gives us a better chance,” Zimmer said. “The kids feel special. They really seem to enjoy the project.”

The $5,000 grant that St. Mary’s Springs received allowed the school to purchase two 125-gallon tanks to make the project possible in two science classrooms for two classes — physical science and environmental science. Larger tanks and much better filtering equipment have made a big difference, Zimmer said. The original single tank held just 38 gallons of water.

Students raise trout from eggs to fry, monitor tank water quality, engage in stream habitat study, learn to appreciate water resources, begin to foster a conservation ethic and grow to understand ecosystems.

With the help of the state Department of Natural Resources, Zimmer hopes that 150-175 fish from the two tanks can be released to nearby streams this spring. That would be up from eight fish released last year.

The fish would usually be 3 inches long when released, but the fish are growing so fast in their improved environment that they will probably be 4 inches when released, he said.

But raising healthy fish is not the only goal.

“The kids get accustomed to caring for things,” explained Zimmer, the father of three St. Mary’s Springs alumni and a member of Immaculate Conception/St. Mary Parish, West Bend.

He said it’s a valuable life lesson to experience first hand that even something like a baby fish has very specific needs. If water temperatures, oxygen levels, pH levels and ammonia levels and food available aren’t just right, fish get sick or die.

To GIFTS grant donors who attend the Catholic Schools Dinner that funds the grants, O’Keeffe said, “Thank you. You are enabling us to strive for excellence.”

O’Keeffe noted that nature is a very big part of students’ lives at St. Mary’s Springs, the northernmost school in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.

“They love the natural world,” O’Keeffe said, and many hunt or fish. “Fond du lac” is a French term that means “farthest end of the lake,” as the city sits on the south shore of Lake Winnebago.

In fact, the school’s extracurriculars include a popular fishing club that even offers well-attended ice fishing outings and tournament fishing, and some members are in the classes doing the trout project.

Examples of other GIFTS project awards to other schools include increasing mental health services, creating an outdoor classroom, investing in items that highlight the Black experience in the Catholic faith, building and equipping a STEM (Science, Technology Engineering and Mathematics) lab, redoing a website, strategies to boost math scores, purchasing new playground equipment, establishing a greenhouse STEM project and installing new signage to reinforce school-community ties.

What: Annual Catholic Schools GIFTS (Grant Initiatives For Today’s Students) grants
Who: Catholic schools affiliated with the Archdiocese of Milwaukee may apply for a $5,000 or $10,000 grant in the following four areas: Catholic identity, development/marketing, educational innovation or seed money for a new long-term project.
Bottom Line: 73 out of 101 archdiocesan schools have received more than $700,000 since the program began in 2019.
Funded by: Proceeds of the annual Catholic Schools Dinner set for Tuesday, March 7, which will feature comedian and Catholic school graduate Charlie Berens. Find out more and purchase tickets online here: