Just a few months ago, families and students from the Queen of Apostles Catholic School were overjoyed to learn that, despite dangerously low enrollment, the Pewaukee school would keep its doors open for at least the next three years, thanks to a financial commitment from Queen of Apostles Parish that totaled over $600,000.

Heidi Spellman, K5 and grade 1 teacher at Queen of Apostles School, Pewaukee, teaches students in her classroom in February. (Catholic Herald photo by Ricardo Torres)

Mary Cairns, K5 and grade 1 Spanish teacher at Queen of Apostles School, Pewaukee, teaches students in her classroom in February. (Catholic Herald photo by Ricardo Torres)

So, when the parish announced this weekend that it would have to close the K3-8 school after all, it was nothing short of “devastating,” in the words of school principal Christine Jackson.

“The time has come to confront the painful reality that our school cannot be sustained,” wrote pastor Fr. Chuck Hanel in an announcement distributed to parishioners and school staff last week. “Even at this late date, there are less than 25 children enrolled for next year. Under any reasonable calculation, this fact precludes opening the school next fall.”

In its Feb. 11 issue, the Milwaukee Catholic Herald ran a feature story on the school’s successful efforts to remain open; at that time, 36 students were enrolled for the 2016-17 school year. It’s not clear why so many students dropped out as the spring semester unfolded, said John Schueller, director of finance for Queen of Apostles Parish. However, because they did, it became impossible for the parish to keep the school open.

“I think everybody is very sad about this because there’s been a long tradition … of Catholic education in this parish,” said Schueller. The school opened in 1958. “So I would say most people are not happy about it … this is not a good time.”

“Obviously, we’re very disappointed – feeling devastated at this point,” said Jackson, who has been a teacher at the school for 10 years and last year moved into the role of teacher/principal. “Lots of upset people. We were definitely looking forward to planning for the future, so it was a little difficult for us to hear that.”

In a phone interview with the Catholic Herald, Fr. Hanel praised the school community who have “been just working and working to try to make this work, with marketing and advertising and testifying and making stuff available to people and getting the message out.”

“It just came down to (the fact that) the enrollment just shrunk so much that we just had to make this decision,” he said.

A tough decision, administrators say

With the decreased enrollment, the parish would have been called on to provide more than the agreed-upon $200,000 per year, said Schueller – and that just wasn’t feasible.

Instead, the money will be dedicated to helping Queen of Apostles families send their children to other nearby Catholic schools.

“Just because we, as an individual parish, are no longer going to be having our own school just connected to our parish, we are going to continue to encourage and to support parishioner families who want their children to attend Catholic schools,” said Fr. Hanel. “We’re committed to helping so that tuition next year at another Catholic school would be less than what they have been paying here.”

There is some concern about losing families to other parishes that do have schools, Fr. Hanel admitted, although he pointed out that Catholic schools affiliated with particular parishes are becoming more scarce.

Longtime staff struggle with the decision

The school employs three full-time teachers, two full-time staff members, and 11 part-time teachers, all of whom are being let go.

“It’s been a great challenge, because save one or two people who are here, the majority of the staff has been here longer than I have. So they have a real history with the school. It’s very difficult,” said Jackson.

Jackson also said the closure is particularly difficult to accept because the staff felt they had made progress in “building a base” of enrolled K3, K4 and K5 students.

“When we had started our enrollment period after Catholic Schools Week, we did know of a few families who were questionable (about re-enrolling) just because of circumstances with graduating our eighth grade; we had a couple of kids who were kind of in limbo between eighth grade and lower grades,” she said, referring to the fact that the school utilizes a multi-grade system that combines grades into one communal classroom.

“Our focus was, in terms of marketing, building up our base again, and that’s what our huge focus was, to just start to bring in our K3s, K4s, K5s and start building from the base, because really, that’s how you build a school,” she said. “We were just starting to see the effects of some of that marketing actually this week, because we had a tuition incentive out there for new families to join us.”

She said she did not feel those most recent enrollees were taken into account when the decision was made to close the school.

But there was no more time to wait to make the decision, said Schueller.

“You have to realize that you can’t wait too long for the teachers; they aren’t going to be able to find a job next year,” he said. “(The decision) had to be made.”

A parish divided

Fr. Hanel said there had been some “division” in the parish regarding whether or not to keep the school going.

“You had the people that thought they wanted to keep the school going at all costs, but then you had others who saw that with the enrollment shrinking so much and the costs of the school growing or not really shrinking that it was getting to be just off-the-charts in terms of cost – when you have only 46 or 48 students and you still have a school that costs in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, the cost per student is just so high,” he said. “And some of the people in the parish recognize that and would ask, ‘Is that really good stewardship of our financial resources?’”

The decision had something to do with money, he said, but was mostly about the quality of the learning environment offered to the students.

“You just can’t, in my opinion and in other educators’ opinions, have a decent learning environment with such a small population,” he said.

Still, he expressed concern about the pain this will cause to school staff and families.

“My heart goes out to them,” he said. “There’s obviously a lot of sadness and perhaps, let’s be honest, some anger, which they certainly are more than justified in feeling.”

A school family

Despite the difficult news, Jackson said the school community is rallying together as a family would in a time of trial.

“Our kids are phenomenal, our parents are phenomenal; we have received nothing but overwhelming love and support from our families and our students,” she said.

In an email to the Catholic Herald, Katie Glafcke, Queen of Apostles School committee chairperson, called the school “a rare treasure” and expressed sadness at the closure – but said also she’s at peace with the decision.

“Despite the sadness we feel, there is real hope for the future,” she wrote. “All of us know and believe Queen of Apostles School has cultivated in each and every one of us a strong foundation of faith. Now God is calling us to share this gift of faith and love with other school communities.

“I am reminded of Christ’s unexpected lesson to his apostles following his Passion. Suffering and death are not meaningless or a sign of failure. Rather, when we earnestly and prayerfully seek God’s will, we are redeemed and given new life.”

A school-wide prayer service was held Monday, April 11. It was, said Jackson, an opportunity for the faculty “to talk (to students) about how important the foundation is that they’ve gotten here, our foundation in God.”

“And as we move forward in our lives, we still have that foundation and we still have the family that was created here that we all love and care about,” she said. “And we will carry that with us, and we will carry it to new places.”