FOND DU LAC — Regionalization of Catholic schools in Wisconsin took a big step forward last week as officials of Fond du Lac St. Mary Springs Academy broke ground for a $24.5 million project destined to host the academy’s secondary, middle and elementary schools on one campus.Fr. Ryan Pruess, team member at Holy Family Parish, Fond du Lac, blesses the construction site of the new Fond du Lac St. Mary Springs Academy elementary school on Wednesday, April 22. (Catholic Herald photo by Steve Wideman)

The project, nearly a decade in the making, means closing two elementary schools near downtown Fond du Lac and consolidating students into a school to be built adjacent to Fond du Lac Springs High School on the city’s east side.

“Right now this project is the most significant building project in the Milwaukee Archdiocese,” said Kathleen Cepelka, superintendent of schools and a 1965 graduate of Springs Academy. “This is our real hope for the future.”

Cepelka said the 10-county archdiocese “is seeing a revitalization of Catholic education, but no more anywhere than in Fond du Lac.”

She said school administrators and Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki “all have a central belief that regional schools combined as in Fond du Lac will make a high quality Catholic education affordable, accessible and sustainable into the future.”

Springs administrators expect a record enrollment when the combined school opens in the fall of 2016, continuing a string of record enrollments, said Kelly Norton, interim academy president.

“Next year (2015-2016) we expect 800 students, which is up 9 percent over this school year,” Norton said. “We’ve been seeing 9 to 10 percent enrollment increases over the past few years. We anticipate once the new school opens we will see even bigger enrollment increases.”An artist conception shows the new St. Mary Springs Academy campus which will house the academy’s secondary, middle and elementary schools.

“The new school will certainly make a difference as folks look for the latest in cutting edge technology and curriculum integration in this competitive world,” she said. ‘“We set ourselves apart by offering a Catholic-enriched educational model.”

“Our parents tell us again and again that they want more one-on-one engagement with their children,” Norton said. “That is something we can do by having a smaller district inside of the Fond du Lac community.”

Fr. Ryan Pruess, pastor at nearby Holy Family Parish, blessed the project, saying the new school “will offer students a place to learn as disciples of Christ.”

Mark Hutter, project steering committee member and a 1984 graduate of Springs, said planning for the project started 12 year ago.

“The Holy Spirit guided us on our journey,” said Hutter, who noted major donors early on praised the combining of primary and secondary schools as “a good thing.”

The existing plan is the 23rd variation on original plans, he said.

Hutter said the project will take place in several phases, the first being construction of the elementary school along with renovations to the high school.

The second phase will entail finishing the high school, which requires raising $2 million in donations over the next four months in order to be ready for fall 2016.

The project has $22 million in pledges with $11 million actually collected, Hutter said.

Phase three is dependent upon the state Department of Transportation’s developing plans to reconfigure the nearby intersection of State 151 and County K, which could mean the temporary loss of some athletic fields and parking for the academy.

Norton said preliminary ground preparation has been underway for several months, including demolition of an older school and its historic bell tower.

“The next significant step will be digging a hole and building the school,” he said.

Norton said the most important benefit of the consolidation of all grades to one site is an allocation of resources “so to make it a more systematic approach to our model.”

“We have everything under one roof so we can share our technology resources and staffing resources. It will result in a more seamless transition for the students as well,” Norton said.

Cepelka said that a week ago she drove onto a ledge on which the school will be built.

“I was reminded again this school is on a hill, it’s a light on the hill, a beacon of hope not just for Fond du Lac, but for our entire archdiocese,” Cepelka said. “The regional concept is to create strong schools centrally located in a region that will attract students from throughout the region. We have so many small schools that are fragile in terms of facilities or finances. What we are trying to do is build strong, centralized schools that can be magnets for students in a particular area. We are certainly doing it place by place and every place has its challenges.”