Kindergarten teacher Linda Ott, center, works with students Izabelle Krueger, Mason Walters, Ally Ullenberg and Owen Kirkwood at St. Mary Springs Academy in Fond du Lac, Monday, Jan. 25. In Fond du Lac, the 100-year old, regional high school and the parish elementary school system have joined forces to form one system, St. Mary’s Springs Academy which offers a complete pre-K – 12th grade education. (Catholic Herald photo by Sam Arendt)

FOND DU LAC — Catholic education is undergoing a face-lift in Fond du Lac. The 100-year old, regional high school and the parish elementary school system have joined forces, merged data bases, melded administrations and telephone systems, re-created a new vision, and branded a new logo and name. Now, almost in its second year as one system, St. Mary’s Springs Academy offers a complete pre-K – 12th grade education, ensuring that Catholic education steps vibrantly into the future.

“We’re the only system of this kind in the archdiocese,” said Tom Borek, interim principal at the high school. “This is unique to the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, but not unique around the state. Oshkosh has a unified system and I think others are moving in that direction. The purpose is to ensure long-term education with changes in the economy and changes in the times.”

The planning and initiatives to merge St. Mary’s Springs High School and FACES elementary school began after a charge by former Archbishop Timothy Dolan in 2002 to study forming a single Catholic education system. In the early ‘90s Catholic elementary schools in Fond du Lac began coming together as one system, called Fond du Lac Area Catholic Education System, or simply FACES. A city-wide merger of Fond du Lac parishes followed.

“The fact that the parishes were able to develop into a single system gives us the confidence in blending the schools,” said Borek.

Throughout the process of merging, they held open forums for faculty and families. In May 2007 nearly 80 people participated in two focus group sessions headed by the appointed FDL/NFDL Catholic Education Task Force. The focus groups were made up of a cross section of teachers, parents, alumni, benefactors, and local parishioners.

With the former archbishop’s approval, FACES and St. Mary’s Springs merged on September 16, 2008, seating a 15-member board. At that time, they referred to themselves as FACES-Springs Catholic Education System. But marketing themselves with two different names soon proved confusing. So last July, the 15-member board agreed to brand one name and one logo.

“Working toward a common mission has been a mind-shift for all of us,” said director of development Barb Senn, who moved from a position at the high school to marketing the full range of educational services, pre-K through 12th grade.

Along with a new name and logo came new marketing and recruitment materials for the elementary levels and high school, because they draw from different areas. The high school draws 50 percent of its students from a 50-mile radius and outlying areas such as Slinger, West Bend, Kewaskum, Campbellsport, the Holy Land area, Plymouth, Sheboygan Falls, Random Lake, Waupun and Malone.

Teachers like Mary Lindborg (high school) and Carol Pitt (middle school) noticed an increase in openness and dialogue. Pitt believes relationships developed through holding in-services together and making connections in fundraising will build continuity. High school teacher Carol Huck sees opportunities for teachers to share expertise across all grade levels and for “enriching each other’s curriculum.”

“Keeping our eyes on the prize,” as Borek likes to say, is what’s important as the merger begins to yield benefits. Those benefits include new opportunities to work together to concentrate their efforts on Catholic education, the consolidation of administrative responsibilities, streamlining initiatives, and fundraising without tapping the same resources.

“There were competing interests before. Now, the focus is on Catholic education and not on FACES or Springs. There is a focus on Catholic education in a broader sense than just elementary or high school or middle school,” said Borek.

Agnesian Sr. Judith Schmidt, president of the academy, is quick to point out the many challenges that have been part of the merger as well as challenges that continue to surface. These include developing a seamless curriculum that engages students in technology and flows from one grade to the next, building up a faith-based Catholic community, keeping everyone informed, creating a new Web site, building a donor-based program, and improving the relationship with Holy Family Catholic Community. The policy handbook and creating one family directory have also been major tasks.

Understanding what it means to be Catholic is part of the mission. The academy has incorporated an adult faith formation program that includes faith-based in-services. Borek said that a faith formation team “is absolutely essential in my mind. I hope that dialogue and discussion focuses on what it means to be a Catholic school.”

Lindborg said the merger “helps families appreciate the system of Catholic values through their formative years…. It enables them to practice their religion in the liturgies and, not only in the liturgies but in service to our community, which happens at all grade levels.”

Pitt believes the future is bright for Catholic education in Fond du Lac.

“I see Catholic education here forever. We have solid support from the parishes. Priests come and do liturgies and programs with us. Parents are very involved. They are concerned about their education and have high goals and expectations for their children,” she said.

Though the merger brought with it apprehension in the beginning, Pitt noticed that “every venture has turned out in a positive way.”

She continued, “No one doing this had anything to gain personally but it’s because everyone believes in Catholic education.”

“I think it’s been a great thing,” said Senn. “It’s brought us together more as community of Catholics with the same purpose: to maintain and improve Catholic education in Fond du Lac. There is a lot of commitment there to make sure the system is kept well and viable into the future. We’re building a foundation and that is based on the previous foundations.”