Laura Pallazolla, right, works with Yessenia Benitez at the John XXIII Educational Center, Racine, April 21. The center, housed at St. Patrick Church, Racine, opened in fall and offers programs to middle and high school students. (Catholic Herald photo by Juan C. Medina)

It has always been about the children, and when San Juan Diego Middle School shuttered its doors last June due to lack of funds, founders and benefactors hoped they could continue their mission to help ensure successful futures for the children in the area.

After the school closed, Fr. Ricardo Martin, former pastor of St. Patrick Parish in Racine, expressed concern for the welfare of the San Juan Diego students and wanted to find a way to help students who might academically fall through the cracks, according to Br. Michael Kadow, a LaSallian Christian Brother.

After consultation with archdiocesan officials, Fr. Martin was given approval to open the John XXIII Educational center to fill the void left by the closing of San Juan Diego Middle School.

The center’s goal was to expand on programs offered by the school and create additional ones to serve the needs of the community, said Br. Kadow.

“The need is tremendous here; we are working with an age group of students who are most at risk of falling behind, dropping out of school, or not staying focused,” he said. “Middle school is a crucial time and by providing services, and working with schools and families, we hope to do what we can to help them set goals and become successful.”

The center, which opened last September, offers after-school activities, mentored study halls, and academic support for high school students, specifically earmarked for graduates of San Juan Diego. Additionally, GED test assistance, home visitations, English as a Second Language, and vocational workshops will be offered.

Since the center opened, community response has been enormous, said Shirley Heck, director of the center.

“Wonderful things have been happening here that have far exceeded all of our expectations,” she said. “We now have supervised study halls, mentoring and tutoring from 3:30-5:30 p.m., and 7-8:30 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays. We started the year with 45 students and now we have 141 middle and high school students.”

For more information:

John XXIII Educational Center c/o St. Patrick Parish
1100 Erie St.
Racine, WI 53402

(262) 632-8808

In addition to various outreach programs such as the MACK Center for non-traditional students dealing with anger issues, approximately 65 community mentors volunteer their time each week to mentor the students. With the approval of parents, center officials monitor student report cards and provide individual guidance and instruction to best suit each student.

“It amazes me that these students are in school all day and come to us with enthusiasm and love the fact that they are getting help with their homework,” said Heck.  “The students’ grades have improved in so many cases and I think it’s because we can provide the individual assistance that teachers don’t have in their schedules.”

Former students and San Juan Diego graduates received initial invitations to join the center. As funding allows, registration includes students from Racine’s two primarily Hispanic parishes, St. Patrick and Cristo Rey.

When San Juan Diego closed, 125 students were displaced, said Br. Kadow. In addition to inviting those students to the center, coordinators reached into the neighborhoods in Racine to attract a more diverse group to include all people of faith or no faith.

Appealing to a diverse group seems to follow one of the missions of Blessed Pope John XXIII, who once said, “We do not wash over our differences, but we have learned the truth that there is more that unites us than divides us.”

Additionally, families utilizing the center will also be able to take advantage of other services already offered by the parish, such as parish nursing and services provided by Catholic Charities, which is located in the gymnasium.

“This is a great resource to the school and parish and we hope to collaborate with them for counseling services and bring in other agencies to provide services for migrants, and hope to not only collaborate with families and schools, but other agencies, as well as eventually some adult education,” said Br. Kadow.

The center is unique in that through the former San Juan Diego School, John XXIII has established links with all high schools in the Racine area and will not be duplicating any after- school programs, but creating its own learning and support atmosphere.

“We had great relationships with the high schools and know the counselors, teachers and administrators,” said Br. Kadow, adding, “We hope to work with a broad range of people of all faiths, races and reach out to anyone of any age who needs or wants our assistance.”

Family fees for the program are $25 per semester to defray the costs, however, no one will be turned away due to financial hardships.

“We will have scholarships and funds to help when needed,” said Br. Kadow. “We are going to support the center with our parish, St. Patrick, and hopefully funds through the Faith in our Future Campaign. We are also relying on former benefactors of the schools, foundations, and hopefully support from Racine Unified to help keep the center operational.”

The center is not a source of catechetical instruction, stressed Br. Kadow, who emphasized that its role is to enhance the work of the schools and parishes, not to take over.

“Parishes have their own religious education program and they work very well,” he said. “We will enhance catechesis by service and example and that sort of thing, but no (religious education) classes will be offered.”

In addition to Br. Kadow, Heck and founder of San Juan Diego Middle School, Mike Frontier, several members of the Lasallian religious community volunteer at the center.

Heck explained that the center operates under a four-pronged support program developed with the assistance of Fr. Martin before he left to study in Washington D.C.

The first is a middle school program under the direction of Br. Kadow. In addition to educational assistance, students communicate with Lasallian volunteers who guide and help with social and behavior problems.

The high school program, under the direction of Frontier and Marisol Alvarez-Salazar, assists students with career planning and college selection, as well as field trips to visit various colleges. This includes preparing students for college entrance exams and methods to increase grade point averages.

The third prong surrounds family education as center officials believe that working with parents will help students succeed in the home, school and community. A variety of community agencies and charities present workshops and speakers to strengthen the family bond.

The community-building proponent offers courses for parents, mentors and tutors, as well as for the entire community. Courses, such as yoga, Zumba, Spanish as a Second Language, reading, health and nutrition, focus on social and health needs of all members of the Racine community.

A Saturday morning Girl Talk course offers pre-teen and teenage girls the opportunity to ask questions that might be uncomfortable in a familial setting. The group builds camaraderie by field trips to museums and other activities to help girls feel secure about themselves.

“This course really works at building self-confidence and self-esteem, and we do get into talking about sexual issues,” said Heck. “We have a weekly challenges list that the girls write and keep track of, and we respond to them. It’s going very well and we have between 14-20 girls here every Saturday for a couple of hours. They are all learning how to make difficult decisions based upon their values.”

Without the backing of St. Patrick Parish and several community agencies and companies, John XXIII Center would not be successful, Heck said.

“We have had such wonderful support from the community and especially from the parish,” she said. “We have received financial support as well as the use of the physical facilities and the people in the parish are also quite excited about the work we are doing. They always come up and say how happy they are that we are providing the wonderful opportunities for students as well as their parents.”

According to Br. Kadow, an estimated $250,000 per year is needed to run the John XXIII Center in the former school. He encourages those interested in volunteering their time or offering monetary support to contact him through St. Patrick Parish.