For the first time in decades, students in the Diocese of Superior could have access to a Catholic high school education.
As soon as this fall, high school classes might be meeting in some local Catholic schools, said Peggy Schoenfuss, diocesan superintendent of schools.
“We’ve talked in the past few years about different ways that we could provide Catholic high school opportunities for students in our diocese,” she added. “We’ve always run into the problems with lack of students to fill the brick-and-mortar school.”
At one time, there were between five and seven Catholic high schools in the diocese, according to Schoenfuss, but most were closed before the 1980s.
About a decade ago, a group from St. Croix County wanted to construct a high school, but decreasing rural populations and the vastness of the 16-county diocese have made building a school a difficult, if not impossible, ambition, Schoenfuss said.
But now, thanks to the latest technology, enthusiasm from diocesan Catholic school principals and an opportunity to partner with existing Catholic high schools, a blended virtual/distance learning program could be the ticket.
“It all started with Our Lady of the Lake (Ashland) really wanting to add high school courses,” Schoenfuss said.
Schoenfuss contacted other Catholic schools in the diocese to gauge interest in a new program, and she called officials at Regis High School, Eau Claire, “to see if they had anything to offer.”
Turns out they did. Regis uses Odysseyware, a secular curriculum, for its virtual program, which is supplemented in-house with a religious education component.
If the Diocese of Superior did team up with Regis, which is in the Diocese of La Crosse, participating Catholic schools would designate a room for high-schoolers to use, and each student would be given a laptop, Schoenfuss explained. An aide or supervisor would oversee the classroom; students would take core classes online, and religion classes would be at a set time, with students participating remotely. Students would also be encouraged to join in other Regis activities – solo ensemble, field trips, clubs and more.
Both Regis and McDonell High School, Chippewa Falls, could eventually offer the interactive classes, although they would be initially taught by Regis, she added. Students would be expected to complete Regis’ graduation requirements, and their diplomas would be awarded through Regis or, eventually, McDonell.
The new program could also benefit younger students; Schoenfuss anticipates allowing middle school students to take high school classes for advanced-level courses.
“It’s kind of going to be a mix of online and face-to-face for students that wish to get a Catholic high school education in our area,” she said. “We’ll be like satellite virtual schools for Regis and McDonell.”
The details are still being finalized, she added, but both the Diocese of Superior and the Diocese of La Crosse have given their blessing to moving forward with the project, “even if it’s only five kids in our diocese who want to participate in it.”
The next step is to find out whether families are interested. To that end, a survey is circulating among parishioners, parents and students in several towns with Catholic schools, including Ashland, Park Falls, Somerset, Rice Lake and Spooner.
Schoenfuss expects to have the responses back this month, and then she’ll know how to proceed. Regis only needs a month’s notice to set up the program, she said.
Tuition has not yet been established, but Schoenfuss said costs will be the same no matter which Catholic school students attend. Although both Regis and McDonell participate in the school choice program, Schoenfuss also isn’t sure how the voucher program would work with the virtual school.
Those details will be sorted out later, the superintendent said.
“We’re just trying to make some people aware of it, see if there is any interest,” she added. “It’s a go if we get students.”