Rendering of what the transformed green space at St. Anthony Middle and High School will look like once completed. (Submitted photo)

Transformed buildings, expanded enrollment capacities, renewed emphasis on Catholic identity — everywhere you look, there are signs that the culture of Catholic education in urban Milwaukee is alive and well.

Amidst a post-pandemic educational landscape that is often fraught with uncertainty, three of the city’s best-recognized Catholic schools are not only surviving but thriving.

St. Josaphat Parish School has not only revamped their sports program and introduced an award-winning robotics team to their extracurricular offerings, they are tackling physical renovations at their campus on West Lincoln Avenue to create a learning environment for their students that is, said principal Karin Strasser, “clean, organized, bright and, at its heart, beautiful — because our kids deserve that.”

St. Anthony School students are benefitting from renovations being made to the school’s lower elementary school campus on Historic Mitchell Street, a project that is overseen by St. Stanislaus Oratory, which owns the building. Additionally, four miles to the south, St. Anthony’s Middle and High School announced plans to transform a parking lot into a green space that will feature outdoor classrooms, athletic fields and recreational areas.

Meanwhile, Notre Dame School of Milwaukee has responded to a steady increase in enrollment by purchasing the former St. Florian Parish property in West Milwaukee. The new NDSM St. Florian campus will welcome students Aug. 24, and the addition of space will “empower us to expand the school by another 250 students,” said NDSM President Patrick Landry.

Here’s a closer look at the exciting developments in store for these three schools.

St. Josaphat: Here to Stay

The cornerstone of Catholic education is the philosophy of whole-child education — mind, body and soul — so it’s fitting that the changes at St. Josaphat Parish School are a combination of spiritual, physical and intellectual renewals meant to solidify the school’s place in the wider community.

“We’re investing in this building because we believe in our families and kids,” said Strasser.

When St. Josaphat’s approximately 200 students headed back to school the week of Aug. 21, they were greeted by a new prayer room created from a refurbished storage space.

This addition speaks to the school’s ongoing efforts to keep the focus on its Catholic identity and mission, said Strasser.

“We had this desire last year to create a space in our school for prayer, reflection and peace,” she said. The former storage room is filled with altars, kneelers and statuary donated from the Basilica and a departing priest at the parish. There are plans to fundraise for further improvements.

Another storage space in the building is in the process of being reimagined as the “Blazer Depot.” Named for the school mascot, this space will be a school store managed and staffed by middle school students. “It’s going to be real-life world of work experience for them, where they’ll be working on budgeting and ordering inventory and pricing items and sales and bookkeeping,” said Strasser.

St. Josaphat recently hired Adrian Lynch as Director of Community Engagement, a newly created part-time position. “His role is going to focus on helping us start our K3 program, and we are going to have more community outreach,” said Strasser. “One piece of that will be starting a men’s group. Men of Christ is a very vibrant organization in the suburbs, but I don’t see it here (on the South Side). We’re going to get a group here.”

Other improvements to St. Josaphat’s physical campus come in the form of new flooring and fresh paint, a refinished gym floor and new scoreboard, as well as a new fence to better protect the school’s exterior green space. These initiatives go hand in hand with ongoing efforts to revitalize St. Josaphat’s sports offerings (their fifth and sixth-grade boys basketball teams were league champions last year) and to establish St. Josaphat as a center for the community.

“Of course academics are at the forefront, but we really want to embrace educating the whole child — (especially) in a community that faces unbelievable cultural forces, more so than our suburban counterparts,” said Strasser, who cited poverty, crime and violence as well as expanding neighborhood private schools as threats the St. Josaphat community contends with. “We’re fighting to keep (our students) grounded in their Catholic faith, not just now but for the rest of their lives. We’re here to stay. We have a strong parent community. Our kids are amazing, and our faculty is mission-based. We’re focused; we’ve got a job to do and we’re going to do it.”

Notre Dame School of Milwaukee: Meeting a Growing Need

In late July, Notre Dame School of Milwaukee closed on the purchase of the property at 1215 S. 45th St., the former location of St. Florian Parish, which announced its closure earlier this year.

On the heels of a successful capital campaign and a transformed campus on South 26th Street that wrapped up just two years ago, this new addition to the NDSM family will further equip the school to meet a growing demand for its services.

Enrollment for the 2023-24 school year is at 680 students, and Landry said the goal is to accommodate 900 learners within the next five years. The demand for seats in NDSM classrooms has been growing steadily since the pandemic, he said. “Enrollment wait lists have been 80, 90, 100, 110 students.”

“We have an excellent school, we have a history of 27 years of success in terms of graduation rates and test scores, and I think that (after the pandemic) parents became a little bit savvier and were really craving values-based Catholic education for their children,” said Landry. “With all the storm of distractions and other things around us, I think interest in a religious education for families is really at a peak in terms of what we’re seeing in the marketplace.”

Landry also said he credits NDSM’s dual-language model with a high interest in enrollment.

NDSM is a sponsored ministry of the School Sisters of Notre Dame and was founded as a girls’ middle school in 1996. A coed primary school was added in 2012 and a middle school for boys was opened in 2018 with just four students — this year, there are 106.

It is the boys’ middle school that will now occupy the St. Florian campus, which is essentially move-in ready, said Landry. The property is 2.4 acres and includes a furnished, 45,000-square-foot school building, a church, two office buildings and parking.

“We are, right now, in some of the preliminary stages for a master planning process to the St. Florian campus which will eventually roll into a capital campaign,” he said.

NDSM’s Expanding Our Vision campaign enabled the transformations to its Mother Caroline campus, which wrapped up in August 2020 and included a newly constructed building and renovations to the existing school building. With the addition of the St. Florian campus and the moving of the boys’ middle school, NDSM is looking to expand its kindergarten and primary grades.

St. Anthony: A Sustainable Education

St. Anthony Middle and High School recently announced the launch of a green space project aimed at creating a state-of-the-art learning environment that will also address critical environmental challenges.

The project’s “centerpiece,” said the school, is the reconstructed concrete lot situated at the western boundary of the middle and high school campuses at Layton and Howell Avenues in Milwaukee.

“With over 40,000 square feet of asphalt to be removed, St. Anthony School is committed to managing approximately 360,000 gallons of storm water from adjacent parking lots and roofs. This effort will substantially reduce storm water runoff and improve water quality in Holmes Creek, a tributary of the Kinnickinnic River Watershed that ultimately flows into Lake Michigan,” the school said in a press release.

The green space will also feature outdoor Socratic classrooms and an athletics field. Students will be able to study native plants and animals, ecology, conservation and sustainability.

“We are thrilled to embark on this transformative journey that not only creates a vibrant green space but also integrates environmental education into our curriculum,” said Dr. Rosana Mateo, President of St. Anthony School. “The green space initiative aligns perfectly with our commitment to sustainability and will provide our students with unparalleled opportunities to learn, connect and thrive.”