A new school year can mean new school supplies, new clothes, new teachers, but for children attending Notre Dame Primary School, this year means a new location and building.Renovations are being made to prepare the former Grace Hmong Alliance Church on South Layton Boulevard that Notre Dame Schools recently purchased for the expansion of its primary school for school. The school has outgrown the St. Patrick School building, on South Seventh Street, it had been leasing since it opened in August 2012. (Catholic Herald photo by Ricardo Torres)

Notre Dame Schools, a Catholic co-educational, dual-language immersion primary school and fifth-through eighth-grade all-girls college preparatory school, announced in a press release June 5 that it purchased the former Grace Hmong Alliance Church on South Layton Boulevard for the expansion of its primary school.

Mary McIntosh, president of Notre Dame Middle School, said next year marks the third year of the primary school’s three-year lease at St. Patrick School, 1115 S. Seventh St., and it was already running out of space – a problem solved by the 25,000-square-foot building that formerly housed the Hmong American Peace Academy charter school until it outgrew the space, and, before that, St. Lawrence Parish and School, until it merged with St. Matthew to form Prince of Peace in 1999.

“There’s a church, there’s a school – a 15-classroom school – a rectory and a convent all on 1.9 acres in the heart of the community where we want to be,” McIntosh said, describing the parameters of the Latino community they want to continue to serve as National Avenue to the north, Howard Avenue to the south, I-94 to the east and 43rd Street to the west. “So, I mean it’s just a golden opportunity for us. … It’s a beautiful building with the old-fashioned, large classrooms, nice storage space and a beautiful church with a wonderful history.”

If you want to help

Contact Tamy Fricker at (414) 671-3000
or tfricker@ndmswi.org, if you’re interested in sharing time or elbow grease to help clean and prepare Notre Dame School’s new primary school building in time for the start of the 2014-2014 school year.

If you don’t have time, but still want to help, the teachers also have a wish list of items to help them prepare for the new school year:

  • -Books/games in Spanish for ages 5-10
  • -School supplies
  • -Playground toys (balls, mini-basketball hoops, jump ropes, hula hoops … etc.)
  • -Puzzles (floor and wooden for kindergarten; advanced for older kids)
  • -Crafts/activities to develop fine motor skills
  • -Children’s kitchen sets
  • -Dress-up clothes
  • -Toy cars, trucks … etc.
  • -Building blocks/Play-Doh
  • -Train sets (not electric)
  • -Moon sand
  • -Legos … please!
  • -Document camera(s)
  • -Wireless listening station w/headphones
  • -Whiteboard easel/cart that rolls
  • -Small whiteboard sets with markers
  • -Plastic letters to form words
  • -Prize box/birthday pencils for student incentives
  • -Headphones for computer lab
  • -Computer cart

McIntosh said they knew that they would have space limitations at St. Patrick, so they started a facility planning project last year, and began working with IFF, a nonprofit community development financial institution that helps nonprofits and their communities through lending and real estate consulting.

Along with identifying the parameters of the Latino community that Notre Dame Primary School wanted to continue to support, IFF also helped with campus planning, McIntosh said, and identified several options for expansion, including converting a warehouse or office space – which would be expensive, expanding the site at the middle school or leasing space from Ascension Lutheran on Layton Boulevard.

But then, McIntosh ran into the principal of the Hmong American Peace Academy at a meeting.

“I happened to mention that we were looking for space, and she indicated that she had an idea for us,” McIntosh said, explaining the school moved to the northwest side, and the church wanted to do the same. “So, that allowed us the opportunity to sit down at the table and to start looking at that space … we loved it.”

McIntosh said the new location offers students green space, a change from the blacktop playgrounds at the middle and former primary schools’ locations, and the opportunity to grow and to potentially provide additional programming and services in the future.

The building needs what McIntosh described as “basic” renovations, including painting, cleaning, rewiring to provide a stronger IT infrastructure, some roof work and tuck-pointing, which, with the help of CG Schmidt, will be completed in time for the first day of school, Monday, Aug. 18. 

“Everybody’s excited as can be,” McIntosh said of the building, which is allowing them to do long-range planning for the first time. “They’re thrilled. Its location, size, I mean, the future potential, green space, parking – we have a happy group of teachers and staff.”

School Sister of Notre Dame Jean Ellman, principal of the middle school founded by her order in 1996, said the purchase not only gives the school community a sense of ownership, but it also provides them plenty of space inside for grades kindergarten through fourth with extra rooms for music, art, a computer lab and library, as well as outside, where parents will be able to more safely pick up their children in the parking area, rather than having to cross the street. A worker repairs stairs Monday, Aug. 4 in the former Grace Hmong Alliance Church on South Layton Boulevard that Notre Dame Schools recently purchased for the expansion of its primary school. (Catholic Herald photos by Ricardo Torres)

She said it also gives them the opportunity to collaborate with Nativity Jesuit Middle School, a nearby Catholic school serving Latino boys from low-income families on the south side of Milwaukee.

“It really opens up the possibilities for us in terms of the dual language, in terms of everything, in terms of parent participation.” Sr. Ellman said in a telephone interview with the Catholic Herald. “That’s a really big thing, because we try to do a lot of parent involvement and also parent, cultural events, because we want our students to maintain not only their language, but their culture and you have to have the space to do that.”

They will also no longer be limited in space, as they were at St. Patrick, where they had three lunch periods because, by code, the lunchroom could hold a maximum of 49 students at one time.

“There’s just a wonderful opportunity to expand and to have a little bit of breathing room,” Sr. Ellman added. 

Kimberly Romero, the primary school principal, also said in the press release that the “acquisition is a win-win for the kids, the Layton Boulevard neighborhood and the Hispanic community.” 

Notre Dame Primary School, which, like the middle school, accepts students through the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, opened with two classes each of 5-year-old kindergarten and first grade in August 2012, and the goal of adding another class each year until the primary campus served K5 through fourth grades.

The school expanded to include a primary school because students entering fifth grade had inadequate language skills, and were performing below grade level in math, reading and science.

Sr. Ellman said their goal in starting the primary school was to better prepare students for middle school, so they would then be prepared for high school and, if they’d choose, some form of post-secondary education. “We want that to be open to them because the completion rate of high school for Latinos is very low, and we recognize that and we wanted to make a difference because Latinos deserve the right, the possibility of going to college, too, and getting a good education, a good job, making a contribution to society,” she said.

The primary school, which enrolled 117 students between K5 and second grades last school year, was projected to add the final classes making it K5 through fourth grade in the 2015-2016 school year.

But McIntosh said the demand for seats in quality schools and the new facility will push the primary school ahead of schedule this fall.

“We have the space, so right now we are scheduled to open up two new third-grade classes and at least one fourth-grade class,” she said, “and we have a waiting list, and if the waiting list continues to grow, we will have two fourth-grade classes.”

McIntosh said moving is bittersweet, because they’ll miss having access to Jesuit Fr. JoséMoreno, pastor of St. Patrick and Our Lady of Guadalupe parishes, who originally directed them to the St. Patrick School building. 

“They’ve been very supportive of our school, but we will continue to work with them in the future,” she said.

Sr. Ellman said she thinks the fact that Notre Dame Schools are Catholic is “really critical” to the families they serve, because of the importance faith plays in their lives. 

“Their faith is really important to them – it’s not just going to church on Sundays, but it’s a part of their being,” she said. “It’s a part of their family. …. It’s so inspiring to be able to work with people for whom faith is such a part of their very being, and to have a Catholic school that is dual language, that appreciates their language, their culture, and really works with the parents and the students to deepen their faith, I mean that’s really important to me.”