Peggy Schoenfuss interacts with a student at St. Joseph’s Catholic School in Rice Lake. Schoenfuss was selected, with 24 other top national Catholic educators, to receive the Lead. Learn. Proclaim. Award on April 3 in Cincinnati, presented by the National Catholic Education Association. (Submitted photo)

Jenny Snarski
Catholic Herald Staff

It is not everyday that Diocese of Superior superintendent of schools Peggy Schoenfuss receives a phone call from the National Catholic Education Association, the world’s largest, private professional educational association. So when Schoenfuss was notified that she had been selected to receive the NCEA’s top award, she was understandably taken aback.

Founded in 1904, the organization serves as the national voice for Catholic schools working to develop leadership, provide resources and expand professional development opportunities for those committed to the Church’s teaching mission.
Schoenfuss was one of 25 recipients of the Lead. Learn. Proclaim. Award that recognizes outstanding efforts, contributions and achievements for Catholic school education. That is one of 25 from among 150,000 member educators serving almost 2 million students, and puts Schoenfuss in an elite class of excellence and service.

The other recipients included teachers and principals, a school organization, pastors and diocesan staff. Three other diocesan staff – all with doctorate level degrees – were honored alongside Schoenfuss, who holds a master’s in educational leadership from Marian University in Fond du Lac.

She received the award at the April 3-5 NCEA 2018 Convention in Cincinnati, accompanied by her husband and Bishop James P. Powers, as well as some diocesan principals who participated in the convention.

Schoenfuss admitted she was “very surprised” by the call from NCEA. Aware that she had been nominated by Steve Tarnowski, the diocesan director of stewardship and development, Schoenfuss said, “I feel honored to receive the award.” With humble laughter, she added, “I was just doing my job.”

In his letter of nomination, Tarnowski expressed high esteem for Schoenfuss, noting her “tireless work ethic and professionalism,” her administrative and communication skills, and her intellect and poise.

Tarnowski recounted his experience with the superintendent over the past three years leading a strategic management and development program for the diocese’s 14 Catholic schools. He complimented her role in helping the schools navigate this process saying, “In a mission diocese, with few resources, the program has been exceedingly successful through her leadership.”

He added, “Although Ms. Schoenfuss spends a considerable amount of time attending to the many administrative tasks associated with developing successful schools, she has not lost the perspective that students are central to the mission.”
Schoenfuss believes the impetus for her recognition was the initiative for the school’s viability and strategic planning. Attending various convention sessions while in Cincinnati, she was reassured that “we’re in the same boat as the largest archdiocese in the country.

“We’re dealing with the same struggles that other Catholic schools in the nation are dealing with, no matter how big they are or how small they are.” She was comforted in knowing that “our problems are not unique.” Given larger pools of personnel and finances that other dioceses have for carrying out their mission of education, Schoenfuss said, “We do a lot, with less resources.

“We take for granted what we do, day by day.” She gave a lot of credit to the principals and teachers who are in the trenches making the diocese’s schools what they are.

In fact, Schoenfuss was pleasantly surprised to see that efforts being put in place in Catholic school systems around the country are projects that have already been started within the Diocese of Superior’s schools.

She maintains frequent contact with her counterparts for the Duluth and La Crosse diocesan schools, as well as diocesan education staff for dioceses across Minnesota and the Dakotas. With similar demographics and realities, they are able to share “war stories,” resources and best practices.

Returning from the NCEA convention, Schoenfuss sees “the number of people we have” as her major disadvantage compared to larger dioceses.

“We want to focus on faith and academics rather than having to focus on viability,” she said. But, “we just don’t have enough people to carry out visionary (projects) to the fullest extent.”

This requires her and the principals to handpick things to focus on and set a plan. She is not discouraged though, saying it is “What we’ve always dealt with.”

Schoenfuss has been the Superior Diocese’s superintendent of schools since 2006. In 2012 she was also given the role of Director of Catholic Formation, which broadened her responsibility to include parish religious education, adult formation and sacramental preparation throughout the diocese.