Our Lady of the Lake School teacher Diane Punjak, pictured working with students from her kindergarten class, is a 2018 Kohl Fellowship recipient. This is the third notable recognition for the school in two years, following on the heels of Deb Cline receiving the Kohl Fellowship in 2017 and Principal Betty Swiston being recognized with an outstanding educator award from the Diocese of Superior in January. (Catholic Herald photo by Jenny Snarski)

Jenny Snarski
Catholic Herald Staff

Reception of the acclaimed Kohl Fellowship is an honor few can claim. Our Lady of the Lake School in Ashland has taken that honor one step further — for two consecutive years, one of its teachers has received this award. Following in the proud footsteps of first- and second-grade teacher Deb Cline, Diane Punjak, OLL kindergarten teacher, is a 2018 Kohl Fellowship recipient.

Since 1990, the Herb Kohl Education Foundation has funded scholarships and awards to acknowledge and support students, teachers, principals and schools across the state of Wisconsin. From both public and private educational institutions, there were 191 teacher recipients for 2018. Each selected educator is awarded $6,000 as well as $6,000 for their school.

Punjak was nominated to apply for the fellowship by Principal Betty Swiston. A compliment in and of itself, but also a commitment. Once nominated, the teacher needs to complete a lengthy application process.

In addition to letters of recommendation, applicants provide information regarding their personal educational philosophy, their work to help all students raise achievement, innovative projects they are a part of, community commitment and what their goals are for classroom or professional development.

The veteran teacher drew on the school’s mission statement in her responses: to be a lifetime learner, and continued improvement and adaptation to the needs of individual learners.

In her dream job as a kindergarten teacher, Punjak stated her case for technology expansion in the lower grades, specifically a dedicated set of iPads and charging station. This expansion is part of a larger plan being realized in part by an E-rate grant for improved wiring and simultaneous online accessibility.

Punjak also requested the funding for field trips, “to get the kids out and in the environment.” Another general goal of the school is outdoor education — improvements have been made to the playground and plans are underway for a reflecting place on the school grounds. Cline’s 2017 Kohl Fellowship helped to finance some of those improvements.

With Cline’s award last year, Punjak “was not figuring the effort was worth it,” but believed in her cause and was willing to put the time into trying. As a lower grades teacher, also with a background in special education, she doesn’t feel writing is her strong point. “The hard part was making the submission complete and concise,” she said.

Swiston said after all the effort put into applying, Punjak kept asking about updates. The teacher actually received her letter before the principal. Admitting she was afraid to open it, curiosity got the better of her. As soon as she saw the words, “it is our privilege” Punjak knew she had been selected. With an expression of satisfaction and relief, she shared how “very excited” she was at the news.

No stranger to hard work, Swiston herselfwas recognized earlier in 2018 with the St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Award for Excellence in Education by the Diocese of Superior. Concerned about enrollment trends and watching some Catholic schools close in the Bay Area, Swiston sought to make Our Lady of the Lake part of the Wisconsin School Choice program.

A former teacher at both Holy Family in Bayfield and St. Louis in Washburn, speaking of Our Lady of the Lake, she said, “This one’s gonna stay open, guaranteed.” Swiston acknowledged the willingness to adapt and change as fundamental.

“We’ve been very busy,” Swiston said, referring to the need to market to the right audience even before the registration period opens. There have been open houses, visiting days and personal contact with families to assess qualification for the School Choice program.
Given the high poverty rate in the Ashland area, more than half of OLL’s students are participants. This funding covers the complete cost of education per child, which is above the charged tuition rate.

Through these initiatives, the enrollment trend has been an increase of approximately 10 students per year in addition to replacing the number of eighth-grade graduates. “We’ve met our goal and will again this year … though we’re not sure how far into the future we can depend on that,” Swiston commented.

The school continues to “build from the bottom up” and can claim that OLL’s pre-school is currently “the one everyone wants.” Their plans are working — in the past, an average of three students moved up to kindergarten; the number is now an average of eight to 10 students annually, half of the pre-school class.

Swiston credits the generational history of the area, “people want to stay here” even when employment and salary is less than desirable. She applauds the “really committed teachers,” many of whom migrated from the schools in Bayfield and Washburn because of their desire to stay in Catholic education.

When asked why their school teachers received back-to-back fellowships, Swiston responded with a bright smile, “because I have two good teachers.” She said, “they were both willing to do the footwork.”

Diocesan Superintendent of Schools Peggy Schoenfuss — herself a recent recipient of a national educator’s award — also commented on the rare occurrence:

“It is very unusual for two teachers from the same school to receive the award two years in a row,” Schoenfuss said. “It is actually very unusual for our diocese to receive two awards in a row. Our diocese seldom has applicants for the award, due to the arduous application and screening process. The teachers at OLL are very good. They are truly making strides for our children. I’m very proud of them.”

OLL Business Administrator Ric Johnson echoed the accolades. “We are so pleased with Diane’s award this year. Last year we were thrilled that Deb received it. It really does go to show what a special school we have here tucked away in the Northwoods. We serve a very low-income population and also multiple tribal communities, with wonderfully dedicated staff. Funding is always a struggle, but that doesn’t seem to hinder the success of our school.”

Punjak was presented the Kohl Fellowship at a regional banquet on April 22 in Chippewa Falls. She plans to give most of her portion of the award money back to the school.