Every summer, beachgoers pack the Pewaukee Lake beach on Wisconsin Avenue. They go for a swim, soak up some sunor enjoy dinner on a patio and watch the sun set. Despite all that traffic, no one would notice the school, less than a mile away, that’s using every trick it can to keep its doors open.
“Nobody knows we’re here,” Christine Jackson, principal of Queen of Apostles School, Pewaukee, said. “We have a beautiful property here. A beautiful, safe property for a school, but it also hurts us in that respect because we’re hidden.”
To get to Queen of Apostles School, drivers coming from the east would most likely take Capitol Drive to High Street, take a right, go up a steep hill and take the first left at Evergreen Lane. All the while they’re seeing nothing but two-story houses and duplexes until suddenly, the one-story school emerges at the end of the street next to a cemetery.
This year, when the 12-member, eighth grade class graduates, only 36 students in the school will return next year.
“In its heyday it had close to 200 students,” Jackson said. “This is the lowest it’s ever been.”
Regina Brown’s daughter Lauren will be one of the graduates, her family’s third, and final, child to graduate from the school.
“I’ve been happy to raise my family here,” said Brown, noting she plans on supporting the school after her child graduates. “I would not want to ever see it close; it would be heartbreaking.”
School given one year
In spring 2015, Queen of Apostles Parish put together a “bare bones” budget to keep the school operating for one more academic year.
“It was dire,” Jackson said. “It was pretty much, ‘This is it.’”
It was up to the school to organize a plan to present to the parish pastoral and finance councils in hopes they would invest in the school.
“It was a plan to say we’re going to stay open, so that we could stay could stay open, knowing it was going to be a tough road,” Jackson said. “You have to think outside the box.”
For young mom Rita Miller with two sons, one in second grade and the other in K4, it was a stressful time.
“It seemed imminent that (the parish) would choose to close the school,” Miller said. “But we were given an opportunity to put a plan together and to address the pastoral and finance council jointly and they agreed with our proposal to give us an opportunity to try to increase enrollment.”
On Jan. 5, the parish informed the school it would make a three-year financial commitment totaling $600,000 to keep and grow its K3-8 school on the condition enrollment increases during that time. One of the initiatives that could help increase the student body is accepting school choice students.
Parents relieved by decision
The decision to remain open was a relief to parents.
“It relieves some panic of having to find a new community to join,” Miller said. “Honestly, it’s one of those things you don’t want to think about because this is where we want to be.”
Many parents in Waukesha County have been surprised that parents like Brown and Miller send their children to a Catholic school.
“I’ve had many families look at us and say, number one, you live in a great public school system, why are you spending money to go to school,” Brown said. “And my kids go on to Catholic high school, too. And (other people) are like, why are you spending your money? I always think, ‘You just don’t get it.’”
Cindy Hill, parish council member, sent her two children to Queen of Apostles where, she said, they were completely prepared for high school. She’s happy the school is able to stay open.
“I am among many of the alumni parents who would have been very hurt and very angry,” Hill said. “We would’ve lost families … we would’ve lost them to the parish. We have a lot of strong alumni families that are still there, still supporting, still fundraising.”
She described the decision as being difficult for the parish.
“The school is a cost to the parish and the building is aging,” Hill said. “There were a lot of financial decisions to be made.”
The parish weighed the financial burden against the ministry of the school.
“They are a gem in our community,” Hill said about the school. “We’re going to struggle until we move, but then you build a school without the enrollment.”
School looked to archdiocese for advice
The situation at Queen of Apostles was felt at the highest levels of Catholic education in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.
“Last spring was a critical moment for the school and the decision was made to keep it open by the parish itself,” said Kathleen Cepelka, superintended of schools for the archdiocese. “There are some who think the archdiocese steps in and closes or keeps schools open. That school is the parish’s school, so that decision was a parish decision.”
Cepelka said her office helped facilitate meetings between the school and the parish to find the best possible outcome.
“The main challenge, of course, is the fact that small enrollment means that the parish and the staff and the school need to be creative in the way that they fund the school, staff the school and provide instruction to the students in the school,” Cepelka said. “There are many advantages to a small school. Students are getting extremely careful and one-on-one type of attention. They get to know their classmates. They develop a strong community. Parents get to know other parents.”
Multi-grade classrooms created
One of the big adjustments Queen of Apostles made to accommodate its students was to implement a multi-grade system to merge grades such as the kindergarten and first grade, which are in a class together.
“Any single grade classroom has those students that are lower, right at grade level, and above,” Jackson said. “In a regular, straight grade level classroom oftentimes the middle of the road is taught and you’ll lose the ones below and you’ll lose the ones above.”
She added in those situations, students who aren’t caught up are left behind and students that are advanced aren’t challenged enough.
“Not every child can make all the leaps every year,” Jackson said. “So they get that extra year in that environment to continue to grow.”
For some, the multi-grade system took some time to get used to.
“I was apprehensive because it’s not what you’re traditionally used to,” Miller said. “But I’m totally sold on it.”
The small student body has had an impact on the faculty and staff with only three full-time teachers, two full-time staff members, and 11 part-time teachers. Jackson herself also teaches along with being principal.
“We had lost art (class) a couple of years ago and actually we were able to add an art teacher back in because of the support of our parents,” Jackson said, adding they also have Spanish, music and physical education teachers.
The school also introduced new technology into its classrooms.
“We have Smart Boards in our classrooms. We have projectors in every classroom. We have iPads in the lower grades,” Jackson said, adding third through eighth grade are one-to-one on Google Chromebooks. “Just because we’re small doesn’t mean we aren’t keeping up.”
The school also has a hot lunch program, extended child care to accomodate working parents, “camps” for sports like cheer and soccer, and this year its eighth grade girls basketball team qualified for the Padre Serra Tournament.
“It was important to keep those, especially from a marketing standpoint,” Jackson said. “That’s what parents are losing in other places.”
Community has been challenged
Jackson described the Queen of Apostles community as a family — a family that been challenged.
“We had a family lose their son a couple of years ago,” she said. “And this school rallied behind them.”
Jackson said during her time at the school, she lost both her parents and it was her school family that helped her get through.
Despite being a school with so much need, Queen of Apostles’ motto is “saved to serve.”
“We do service projects every month … we call it our serve program,” Jackson said. “We focus on the values of service, empathy, respect, volunteerism and excellence.”
This Lent the school will have a “penny war” to support the Stars and Stripes Honor Flight and they’re also supporting the parish in their collection of 40 cans for the 40 days of Lent to benefit the St. Vincent de Paul Society.
For now, the school is preparing to graduate those 12 students, and continuing the academic year on the “bare bones” budget provided for them by the parish.
Their name is becoming more visible, especially with news about the school in the parish bulletin every week.
The students, parents, faculty and staff are preparing for a difficult, three-year journey but they relize there is no guarantee of success. Nonetheless, they’re willing to undertake that trek.
“It’s our vocation,” Jackson said. “It is truly our vocation to be here every day, day in and day out, with these children. It’s not a job.”