Catholic Herald Staff
As the Catholic schools in the Diocese of Superior celebrated the 46th annual Catholic Schools Week, their principals and leadership faced challenges as varied as the regions in the diocese and Catholic schools across the nation.
From 2015-19, diocesan school principals participated in a Catholic school sustainability initiative as a partnership grant funded by Catholic Extension. Catholic School Management’s Strategic Management and Development Program provided understanding and tools that have contributed to the viability and vitality of two schools in particular – Our Lady of Sorrows School in Ladysmith and St. Mary’s School in New Richmond.
Our Lady of Sorrows, Ladysmith
Our Lady of Sorrows Principal Megan Dieckman started halfway through the four-year strategic management program. Dieckman became principal at Ladysmith’s Catholic school after a career in the public school system. She called the diocese’s participation a “proactive approach” toward learning components of running an efficient school.
Financial accountability and marketing plans have become particularly important for all schools in the diocese. According to the Office of Catholic Schools, at one point, there were 32 Catholic schools operating in the diocese. The current number is 14, with multiple demographic, economic and ecclesial factors playing out in recent decades.
Dieckman, with other school and parish leadership, led an open forum Nov. 13 as an interventional step to ensure Our Lady of Sorrows’ continuing service to Rusk County families.
“We’re a shrinking district altogether,” Dieckman told the Catholic Herald, noting that Ladysmith doesn’t have much industry drawing younger families. The district is also considered at poverty level.
“Everybody’s hurting enrollment-wise,” she clarified, speaking of both the local Catholic and public schools.
The November meeting, attended by parents, students and parishioners from the six-parish cluster including Ladysmith, was called to “fact-find for what families were really looking for from our school and what was needed in our county,” Dieckman said.
Triggered only in part by foreseeing the need to be more financially stable, the principal considered the forum to be “very productive.”
Dieckman said the “overwhelming” response was not in favor of a proposal to cut middle-school grades.
Proposals that were supported included adding a 3-year-old preschool program, including wrap-around services with before- and after-school care, which makes the program a viable replacement for daycare.
After consultation with and approval from Bishop James P. Powers, the school will move forward in adding the program, as well as a fifth day of school for the pre-Kindergarten program.
For tuition assistance, Our Lady of Sorrows is in its second year as part of the Wisconsin Parental Choice Program. This has given some families, currently 10 percent of the student population, the opportunity to attend the Catholic school tuition-free.
Participating schools receive a state aid payment for eligible students. Student eligibility is determined, as established by law, through residency, income and prior year attendance. (The income requirement for 2020-21 is approximately within 220 percent of the poverty level.)
The cost of educating students in diocesan schools, while less than the cost of educating students in public schools, exceeds – often by more than double – tuition rates. Schools offset these through parish subsidies, fundraisers and grants.
As the number of Catholic students has waned, enrollment of other Christian and non-religious students has increased in all diocesan schools. Forty percent of Our Lady of Sorrows’ students are not Catholic.
Nonetheless, parents value many aspects of Catholic education in addition, or parallel to, the faith-based environment.
Dieckman said their eighth-grade graduates are noticed once they transition to the public high school, a common occurrence in public schools in the diocese where a Catholic elementary school exists.
“You know the OLS kids,” she said. “They do well academically, but their respect is what sticks out the most … The faith-based (education) really shines through without proselytizing.”
Marketing to a wide array of families will continue to be a primary focus for the school.
The principal said there is a long-standing saying in Ladysmith “that OLS is the best kept secret. Getting out there more has been a big push.”
A school sign made by one parishioner – a retired art teacher – was a good start. The school’s relationship with the Chamber of Commerce has been solidified by the cluster’s new administrative assistant, Dr. Bob Lecheler. A former public school principal and administrator who has also directed an office for the Diocese of La Crosse, Dr. Lecheler also teaches some classes at OLS.
During the month of January, the chamber office’s display cases are filled with Our Lady of Sorrows School information and promotional materials.
Dieckman applauded the training and support for the diocese’s Catholic school principals as “amazing.” She said their teamwork “wonderful,” and that they are willing to share anything and everything.
St. Mary’s, New Richmond
Laura Jo Jarchow, in her 20th year at St. Mary’s School in New Richmond, has seen more dire financial and enrollment challenges than Ladysmith’s school is facing.
“I don’t how many years in a row I didn’t know if I’d have a job,” she said. As a middle-school teacher, there were times closing that section was considered and times the entire school “wasn’t expected to last much longer.”
Crediting a “perfect storm of factors,” Jarchow reported, for four out of her five years as principal, the academic year has ended with a balanced budget and surplus.
Enrollment has steadily grown, as well, with students transferring into all grades. Her first year, the student population was 132. Jarchow is projecting 202 for the 2020-2021 school year.
In addition to what was learned through the diocesan strategic management grant program, Jarchow follows a personal philosophy of building relationships with parents, students and faculty.
Jarchow emphasized the equal importance of hard work, massive efforts in communication and marketing “to current stakeholders and also to new stakeholders,” as well as active community involvement.
Teachers have been given professional development on more progressive and updated teaching styles that today’s parents seek.
She believes there is a “culture shift needed to move beyond the block and change from how we’ve always done things.”
The principal acknowledges the transfer of “hometown boy and St. Mary’s alumnus” Fr. John Anderson has been a “huge support” for Catholic education and St. Mary’s School.
“With so many spokes on that wheel,” she iterated how many things came together at once – including the finalized construction of the Stillwater Bridge – for the school’s stability and success.
A good working relationship with New Richmond’s superintendent has helped keep St. Mary’s School included in district communications and educational efforts, sharing resources and services.
The school is included as one of the district’s 4-year-old Kindergarten (half-day) charter programs. No religious instruction is included, but with St. Mary’s “Connect On,” students can stay for the full day for learning enhancement and the added faith elements. And with the school’s own 3-year-old program, a child can attend St. Mary’s seamlessly into elementary school.
Jarchow was quick to recognize New Richmond’s good public school system, but added, “I think with the climate of today’s culture, parents are wanting that smaller classroom feel and that religious moral compass that Catholic education can provide. The public school here is very good, but we are able to put Christ in every single lesson.”
That is something she believes people are wanting, and as less-engaged Catholics become parents, they are coming back to their faith and wanting “to have it every day of their life.”
In line with the diocesan trend, St. Mary’s non-Catholic student population averages 30-35 percent.
St. Mary’s School is “very fortunate” to have many parishioners who are not affiliated with the school support Catholic education, Jarchow noted. They often participate in school events, like weekly Mass and fundraisers.
Space presents the leadership’s most pressing challenge, and adding more teachers. The school’s retention rate has steadily remained upwards of 95 percent.
This year’s graduating eighth-grade class has five students, but with 20 incoming Kindergarteners, space and scheduling are issues.
While Jarchow admits she and Fr. Anderson have daydreamed about longer-term growth, in the short-term, capping class sizes might be one of only a few possible solutions. Physical expansion is not a viable option, as the school is landlocked in town.
Overall, the principal is “very happy with our situation.”
Again, crediting a lot of hard work by a lot of people, she said it has been “a complete 180 from where we were five to six years ago.”