Our Lady of the Lake Church. (Photo courtesy of http://www.ourladycc.org)

Our Lady of the Lake Church. (Photo courtesy of http://www.ourladycc.org)

Anita Draper
Catholic Herald Staff

On the afternoon of June 10, the new principal of Our Lady of the Lake Catholic School, Ashland, was moving boxes.

Betty Swiston, who took over the position June 1, has more than 30 years’ experience working in diocesan schools.

A Bayfield native who graduated from UW-Superior’s elementary education program, she started out at Cathedral School in 1982, then moved to Holy Family, Bayfield, for 14 years.

Swiston was then hired as the principal at St. Louis, Washburn, where she served for 12 years before joining the staff at Our Lady of the Lake.

With five years’ experience at OLL and master’s degree in educational administration, she arrives in time to lead the 125-year-old elementary and middle school’s transition from single- to multi-grade classrooms.
Unlike many Catholic schools, Our Lady of the Lake has never been multi-grade, beyond gym and band classes, she said. But, like many, the school has struggled with declining enrollment.

“It was a financial decision … so we can be fiscally responsible as a school,” she explained.

With enrollment between 120 and 130 students, Swiston said OLL has stayed in the black, but it’s been dipping into an endowment fund the past couple of years – a practice the administration intends to curtail.

Having only eight to 10 students per classroom wasn’t sustainable, she said, so school and parish leaders considered their options. They organized town hall meetings and invited parishioners and parents to speak their minds.

Parish support for the school is strong, according to Swiston. Generations of families have attended Our Lady of the Lake, and the community was open to a multi-grade program.

For the school, a fresh approach to classroom organization will free up money for technology upgrades.

“It was limited,” she said of OLL’s former technology-funding capability. “You’re going at a snail’s pace, and the whole world is going at a road runner’s.”

The school already has a Smart Board. With more money, it will be able to go wireless and use OptionC, the school management program for Catholic schools, which will track lessons, lunch data and more.

The school is also moving back to the reading workshop method, where staff is trained to suggest books to students based on their individual interests and skills.

“The old is now new again,” Swiston said. The theory behind the method is, “The more you read, the more you write, the better you get at it.”
“It’s a lot of independent student choice,” she explained, which is “more motivating than everyone reading the same book.”

OLL teachers will undergo online training before the new method is implemented. A math workshop is also coming, she added.

St. Louis Catholic School was multi-grade as well, so Swiston is well versed in the system’s advantages. Research shows students schooled in multi-grade classrooms develop superior social skills while maintaining the same achievement level of single-grade students, she said. School becomes more of a familial setting, with older kids helping younger students.

Swiston also has anecdotal evidence to support the system’s effectiveness. Her daughter, schooled in a multi-grade format, is in graduate school. Ditto for her sisters, who are physicians, and a former pupil from St. Louis, who has just been accepted into medical school.

Some of the staff at OLL have multi-grade teaching experience. Others may find the change “a bit more challenging,” she said, but Catholic school teachers aren’t the only educators gaining experience in multi-grade settings.

“Even nationwide, this is a trend that a lot of schools are going to because of declining enrollment,” she continued. The local public school has a charter school that blends three grades – third, fourth and fifth – into a project-based program.

As she prepares for her first year leading the school, Swiston is comfortably settled . Her family’s long history in the area is also an advantage as she takes on her new role in the community.

“I’m feeling at home here,” she said. “People know they can trust me.”