Both schools currently hover around that century mark tipping point, and seemed headed for closure.

“I have to credit this community with being pro-active,” Weyer said. “Instead of waiting for the other one to collapse, and then cherry-picking students to get their own numbers up, both sides got together. If we had done things based on dollars and sense, we would’ve made different decisions. But we committed to the future instead.”

The future is Wauwatosa Catholic, a collaborative venture that attracted the attention of a celebrated administrator, Julia D’Amato. She brings a proven track record with new schools and the distinguished, gold standard International Baccalaureate Organization’s Primary Years Program.

Word spread, and now “we’ve got 190 students enrolled,” Weyer said. “We’re dreaming big, and there is significant buzz. It’s just exploding.”

D’Amato is longtime educator

D’Amato, a native of Palermo, Sicily, grew up on Milwaukee’s Italian lower East Side. She is a member of St. Dominic Parish, Brookfield.

“My parents migrated for a better future. My grandfather worked in the coal plant here, so that’s why we came,” she said. “I grew up as one of four siblings, among Gloriosos and Sciortinos. We were mostly at St. Hedwig’s, but also at St. Rita’s. I graduated from St. Joan Antida High School, and attended Mount Mary College and Cardinal Stritch (University),” before launching a career as an educator.

“I like to say God gave me skills, and MPS (Milwaukee Public Schools) gave me opportunities,” she said. “I’ve been blessed with great people to work with.”

D’Amato has spent a lifetime in MPS, first as a long-term substitute in Family Consumer Education and Health, then as a full-time teacher and administrator. High schools on her résumé include Bay View, Hamilton, John Marshall, Pulaski and Washington, as well as Solomon Juneau Business High School.

“I went to (Milwaukee’s) Madison University High School around 1994,” she said. “I picked up more administrative duties. I was school-to-work coordinator. I did grant writing. The board wanted the International Baccalaureate (IB) program, and we got that.”

When “the principal went to (Lynde and Harry Bradley Technology and Trade School), I went with,” she said. “Then Superintendant Bill Andrekopoulos came knocking. Parents really wanted IB on the South Side. I prayed about it, and I went. That was in 2003.”

School became model of excellence

Ronald Wilson Reagan College Preparatory High School, on South 20th and West Edgerton streets, was the result. What started as a small school of about 400 students has grown to 1,100, with a waiting list approaching 900.

In a public school landscape littered with failures, the school is a beacon of excellence, quality and hope.

D’Amato, though, retired.

“What I had to do at Reagan was done,” she said. “I made it into one of the best schools in Wisconsin.”

But when she heard about Wauwatosa Catholic, she took a page from the Brett Favre playbook and un-retired.

“I look at this as an opportunity to create not one good school, but two,” she said. “I blame the Man Upstairs.  I’m not looking to control my own destiny. It’s not about what I want. After I retired, I was in prayer and it really resonated. ‘Do it for me.’”

Principal is faith-based

Weyer is glad she did.

“We got 23 applications for principal,” he said. “We put together an eight-person interview committee – one parent, teacher and trustee from each school, as well as two additional principals from nearby. She was clearly our preferred candidate. She then interviewed with the two pastors: Fr. Peter Drenzek (St. Bernard) and Salvatorian Fr. Bob Marsicek (St. Pius X).”

“Julia’s notoriety and success at Reagan is well known throughout the MPS community,” Weyer said. “But that reputation and those connections are not why she was hired here. We love her skills, qualities, track record, and the type of faith-based person she is. She’s had success with grant writing, and with reaching out to the community for significant gifts.”

“With my résumé I could walk into any school,” D’Amato said. “But I like the community members. The foresight was really something different. There’s diversity here. I look forward to instituting IB. I want to use the Catholic faith as the umbrella everything falls under.”

New school is opportunity

What would be a daunting task to many – creating a new entity from disparate community fragments – is regarded by Weyer and D’Amato as opportunity.

It’s a chance to start a new school, D’Amato noted, which can and should draw on the best of both worlds.

“Obviously not everyone is pleased,” Weyer said. “But it’s more mourning than anger. St. Bernard, for instance, was the first Catholic parish in Wauwatosa. We’ll be celebrating our 100th anniversary this summer. Pius X, too, has a long, distinguished history. One challenge for us will be keeping both sets of alumni in the loop, and finding a place for them at the new school.”

Another challenge is, basically, everything. The new school must start from scratch.

D’Amato works from a small, shared office at St. Bernard Parish, beside a statue of St. Anthony, and a plaque that reads:

With God behind us
and his arms beneath us
we can face whatever lies before us.

But she remains confident, and has a clear plan.

“At Reagan, I was asked to take the job in April. I began in May, and we started fresh in September,” she said. “So, having taken this one in February, I have a little extra time.”

“At this point, we’re still taking applications and hiring staff,” she said. “All the teachers from the two schools were non-renewed. But they’ll get the first chance to reapply. We value their service, familiarity and dedication. We’ll start the professional learning community meetings and training thereafter, and hopefully be ready to open Fall 2011.”

“There are small and big decisions to be made,” in the meantime, she said. “We need a logo and colors. Uniforms. We need a school calendar and hours. On a larger scale, we’re putting an entire system in place. What will the curriculum look like? Which books will we use? We do know this: Pius X (physical building) will be mothballed for the time being. Fate TBD.”

Service is central to IB program

The school also is taking on one of the most lauded and recognized programs available.

“We want to become the first Catholic elementary school in Wisconsin to institute it,” she said. “It was developed in the late 1960s for diplomats’ children. Service learning is a central piece; giving back. Is there anything more perfect? All people need to give back. And here we can blend it with Catholic faith.”

The IBO is headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland, and serves 190,000 children in 140 nations worldwide. It is in more than 200 schools in the United States. About 40 percent are private. Waukesha Catholic Memorial High School has already instituted it.

The application process, though, is extensive and rigorous. And D’Amato emphasized it won’t be in place for several years.

“The process is typically three years, even four – if you’re approved at all,” she noted. It includes applying, teacher training, IB consideration, candidacy, consultation, curriculum review and implementation, additional teacher training, curriculum specifics, and final verification from IB America.

“At the end, they visit, and check out the buildings, teachers and the like,” she said. “Then there’s a four-month wait after that.

“I know (the process) pretty well,” she concluded. “We did it at Wedgewood (Park International School) for 6-8th grades, at Madison University High School for 11th-12th grades, and twice at Reagan – for 11th-12th and 9th-10th – making it the city’s first all-IB school.”

In preparation for her new position, D’Amato said she recently attended each of the weekend Masses at both parishes.

“I spent hours after each talking to parishioners. I can safely say that significant excitement has been generated. There’s a lot of curiosity,” she said.

“We began with the end in mind,” she said. “Our goal is to score well above the 90th percentile in Iowa Basic testing. We want to be rigorous. We believe that all students can succeed. It’s not a place solely for the brightest. We want to get the best from those here.”

According to Weyer, since word of D’Amato’s hiring was announced, he’s received calls from prospective parents in Brookfield to the East Side.

“We tell them: anybody is welcome here. We won’t be doing any busing. But we’re open for business,” he said.