“Rather than to say, ‘We want you, but we don’t want you,’ everybody had that same opportunity to reapply and to go through the interview process,” said Sr. Mary Theresa Rozga, a provincial counselor.

The teachers had to be on board with the high expectations, she said, admitting that the girls of today are entirely different from those of 20 years ago. “That’s why no teacher was fired, no teacher was asked to resign, but everyone had to reapply, including the sisters, and then for them to understand that this is the direction that the school is going: do you want to go in that direction? Are you willing to go in that direction?”

Of the 43 staff members who were employed at the school before a change was announced, 25 teachers reapplied for their positions and were hired. While it was hard for the teaching and administration staff to understand, it was extremely necessary, according to Sr. Anne Marie.

Staff invited to reapply

“All the teaching staff, including the sisters, were given the opportunity to reapply, knowing that there would be changes and expectations, and possible changes in course offerings,” she explained. “What happened was, of course, some of the course offerings that we had in the past were not offered, and so because they didn’t want or were (unable) to teach other course offerings, they didn’t reapply.” A small amount also decided against reapplying due to finding a new job, she added.

“But basically, we didn’t say, ‘You’re all fired,’” Sr. Anne Marie said. “We were looking at going a new way, and we want you to join on board, but we want you to give us a commitment that you’re willing to accept this new way, because some had been teachers for a long time.”

Wonderful teachers, wonderful past

The decision to change the direction of the school was not meant to insult past or present teachers, Sr. Anne Marie explained.

“We’ve had wonderful teachers; we’ve had a wonderful past,” she said. “We’re not putting down anything that happened in the past; we build on the past, but we have a new population, we have new girls, new needs; we need to meet the needs of our girls.

“We believe that if we raise the bar, our girls will achieve. That’s what we’re planning to do: raise the bar,” Sr. Anne Marie added.

The school boasts a new class schedule and curriculum that promotes increased instructional time, concentration on core academics, technology integrated into all courses, and more advanced placement and scientific offerings. It will also include a more expanded engineering program, in addition to its foremost core requirement, increasing faith in their students’ lives.

“The core values in the school are hinged in our Catholic identity,” Sr. Elizabeth Weber, a provincial counselor, explained. “I think our environment in the school is reflective of Catholic identity with the symbols we place in the classrooms and the environment that’s created around the school throughout the different liturgical times.”

Liturgical celebrations, prayer services and retreats are also offered to students, all the while keeping in mind many of the students’ diverse backgrounds that may not include an upbringing in Catholicism.

While the sisters feel comfortable with their decision, they know that there are many vocal people who are in disagreement in how the school is being run by Cynthia Marino, president of the school, and recently named “head of school,” in which she is responsible for all aspects of the operations of the school. This includes facilities, personnel, enrollment, academics, student services, parent involvement and advancement, but she must still report to SJA’s board of directors and provincial team.

“It was our decision – our call – in consultation with our board that wants this change and OK’d the change of direction of the school,” Sr. Anne Marie said in regards to the idea that Marino was ultimately in charge of implementing the change. “It was not dreamt up by Cindy Marino. We basically informed Cindy Marino that we wanted to have a change, we wanted to see improvement in scores, we wanted to see improvement in discipline. You’re working for us, these are our expectations, and this is what you will be evaluated on as our employee. We’re raising the bar now.”

Grievances against ‘head of school’

In addition to school staff, the sisters requested that Marino also reapply for her position. During the interview process, the provincial and the executive boards took into account the grievances filed against her during her six years with the school. According to a grievance filed by former SJA theology teacher Ryan O’Rourke, common complaints among teachers have been the school’s student expulsion policy, the high turnover rate of teachers since Marino was hired, and the amount of time teachers are allowed to prepare lesson plans and implement them.

“The first grievance in the 50-year history of the school was filed the first year she was there. There have been numerous grievances filed ever since,” said O’Rourke, now a chaplain at Franciscan Villa in South Milwaukee. He had taught at the school for four years until 2008 when his contract expired and the school chose not to renew his contract.

According to O’Rourke, the school began to lose academic excellence when Marino was brought on board as president in August 2004. O’Rourke was part of a group of teachers that sought the services of a lawyer in their quest for a “better working environment,” and Marino’s resignation.

“When I filed my grievance (in 2007), everybody that had done so before me had gotten fired,” he said, explaining how he sent the grievance to the entire teaching staff and administration in order to avoid any retaliation by Marino. “I was really deliberately thinking how to protect myself, and so that was part of the reason that I sent it to all the staff.”

While no written evidence of dishonorable conduct from Marino was made available to the Catholic Herald, O’Rourke claims that he witnessed many instances of retaliation from Marino against those who filed grievances.

“She would observe classrooms, and so she wouldn’t fire you for filing a grievance, she would fire you for being ineffective,” he explained. “It got to the point where I found myself in a meeting with the provincial and with her and the principal and the head of the board. I wouldn’t go into meetings anymore without a tape recorder, that’s how bad it got.”

Only few grievances found to be ‘legitimate’

The sisters acknowledge that Marino has had grievances filed against her, but only a small few were found to be legitimate. They attribute the many written grievances filed to the conflicting personalities of Marino and school staff, explaining that her rigorous and demanding demeanor was not a personality type to which the teaching staff was accustomed. When asked how many of the grievances filed against Marino were found legitimate, they were unable to answer due to the school’s privacy policy, but did explain the steps taken when a grievance is filed.

“In our employee handbook, there is a written policy of who your grievance is against, and then it goes up to Cindy (Marino), and if Cindy (Marino) is the person you’re having your grievance against, then it goes to the executive committee board, which we are a part of,” Sr. Anne Marie explained. “We determine whether it’s a grievance regarding policy, if it’s contractual or a policy grievance, then we do step in and make recommendations and meet with the person.

“We do have people on our board who are lawyers, and we also have the services of an employment lawyer (who) always look at these grievances and help us to say whether or not this constitutes a grievance, and how do we proceed with this, so we always got legal counsel and we dictate every single grievance,” Sr. Anne Marie explained. “Whether we thought it was foolish or not, we did bring it to legal counsel and see if we were determining correctly.

“The main thing is, if we felt that Cindy (Marino) or any other employee did something that was grievous, we would not keep them,” she added. “We want what’s best for the girls, and so we take that very seriously and will go through all of the channels, even to the point of an employment lawyer, checking to make sure if this (a grievance) is valid, this is not valid, because again, we want what’s best for the girls.”

In an e-mail interview with your Catholic Herald, Marino described one particular grievance filed against her that best illustrated the atmosphere at SJA at the time, during the revamp of the school’s library in 2007.

“We had an antiquated library with three computers, one with an out of order sign on it. I led the efforts to raise money for the total redesign and updating of the library, which not only created a database of resources and research to support student learning, but also added more than 35 computers, a combination of laptops and individual computers.” A room with state of the art technology for teacher presentations, and a full-time librarian, was also added, according to Marino.

Although the renovation project was to be completed by the end of summer, they were unable to finish, she said. Books were moved out of the library by Marino and the summer staff to save money on labor, and stored on various classroom windowsills throughout the school.

“This was part of a major complaint against me,” she said. “First, the complaint indicated I did not ask the teachers for approval to update the library, and second, I stored books on the windowsills in a teacher’s classroom.

“During the discussion of the complaint with the individual who filed it, our board chair asked the teacher to please explain why a couple of weeks of inconvenience should not be tolerated so that we could provide our girls with access to a modern, state-of-the-art library.

“My bottom line question was, is, and will be … is this in the best interest of our girls? That bottom line guides my work and my decisions,” she wrote.

Archdiocesan superintendent of schools Kathleen A. Cepelka wasn’t involved in the change of curriculum at SJA as she only assumed her position with the archdiocese July 1, but stressed the need for student achievement in Catholic high schools within the Milwaukee Archdiocese.

“I think people in general are very supportive of urban education, and especially urban education in a school that is struggling to prepare young women for excellence,” she explained. “They are committed to preparing young women of low economic means for excellence. I’ve heard a great deal of support for the school, and for its mission.”

‘Strong culture of being proud’

While teachers and administrators determine what is best for SJA, recent and long-time graduates are grateful for the years they spent at the high school.

“When I started (at SJA) I was very awkward and shy, introverted, very bookish,” recalled Elysabeth Reichman, who graduated in 2000. “In my time there, I definitely came out of my shell.”

She attributes her achievement in honors courses and finding her place emotionally at the school to the teachers.

“(There was a) really strong support system, but also a really strong culture of being proud of being a woman. That was definitely something that was very much about celebrating the individual person, and I have to say that something that I know a lot of people don’t encounter in high school – including my husband – is that there were no groups, there were no cliques. You had your friends, obviously, that you hung around with, but there’s not one person that I went to high school with that I wouldn’t love to sit down and have a cup of coffee with, just because it was very much about sisterhood.”

The conflict that seems to follow the high school since teachers were asked to reapply for positions is one that Reichman has been following closely, through local media reports, fellow alumnae and past teachers.
Hearing reports of poor scores, poor attendance and other matters of concern not only feels to Reichman like an insult to her and her fellow school peers, but also leaves her a little confused.

“To hear poor scores, poor performance, almost feels like definitely a slap in the face for the girls who are there and who are achieving,” she said, adding that an SJA newsletter sent out by Marino in 2007 states that there was high performance within the school, and a high number of college-bound students.

“My question about that is, if that was from 2007, what happened?” Reichman asked. “Because it’s only been three years, and it’s plummeted so much. There’s definitely something fishy on either end.”
Reichman remains proud to be a graduate.

“Obviously it’s been 10 years since I left and staff has come and gone – for personal reasons, because of this latest incident – but I think that the people who were there when I was there were teachers of a high caliber. Not just interested in teaching the curriculum – like making sure you read X, Y and Z – but really making sure that you understood it.”

While Corie Marshall, 19, agrees with Reichman’s attitude that the school offered a lot to her, she does have a different experience regarding relationships with her peers.

“When I was a freshman coming in, I was really excited about the diversity,” she said. “I thought it would be a good experience for me.”

While the diverse student body – of which 90 percent are Choice students – added much to her experience at the school, it wasn’t without problems. She remembers many instances when school and the classrooms were “a bit rocky.”

“I can only give my views on these past few years at St. Joan’s, but I did notice that the student body sort of changed. I noticed that classes were more disruptive; they seemed to be a little bit fuller,” she said.

An aura of dissatisfaction within the school was also very much present, according to Marshall, especially when some classes began to disappear from previous schedules, such as an Italian language class she had taken as a freshman.

“I know that teachers weren’t too pleased with some of the students’ behaviors,” she said, adding that the absence of “zero tolerance” took a toll on students who tried to stay out of trouble.

“You would see kids who got into trouble during the school day, and you would see them maybe a few weeks later return,” she explained. “From my experience, I think it became more frequent during my junior and senior years, as more and more kids were returning after acting up and getting into serious trouble.”

Expulsion decided on a ‘case–by–case’ basis

Teachers at the school have been concerned about the school’s lack of a “zero tolerance” policy for students who start or participate in fights on school grounds, as is stated in O’Rourke’s grievance. The policy was changed about five years ago, according to the sisters. While the sisters are aware of some of the teachers’ wishes to initiate that policy again, they choose to stick to giving out “second chances” in the manner of restorative justice.

“They learn to talk about how to handle conflict and it’s not like there’s not consequences for fighting, because parents are brought in, contracts are signed, we have social workers, we have counselors, that’s taken care of,” Sr. Anne Marie explained. “But some of the teachers prefer the zero tolerance because, of course, that’s so much easier, to toss somebody than it is to really have to work with kids.”

While some students are expelled for fighting, this is decided on a case-by-case basis, Sr. Theresa said. Whereas before zero tolerance was the ground rule, today there are hearings with school administrators, students and their parents.

“Once they leave school, they’re going to be in jobs and things where they’re going to need discipline and structure, and so we want to make sure there is good discipline and structure for them now,” Sr. Mary Theresa explained. “But again, in a way that is going to help them to grow, but to also keep the other girls safe, and to respect both sides of it.”

Marshall is optimistic about the direction the school is headed.

“I really hope it will be beneficial, because I like St. Joan’s and I wish the best for all the students and all the teachers that are still there and (those) who’ve left,” Marshall said. “I think St. Joan’s has had a rocky past couple of years and I think it gets unfairly stereotyped.

“I had a good four years there,” Marshall said, adding that she now attends Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y. “I think that St. Joan’s helped me get there. It’s a good launching pad for what I hope will be a successful future.

“I think (SJA) has had its fair share of problems, and I just hope that they can work out these problems with this new path the school is taking.”