GLOBAL.diocesan shieldAnita Draper
Catholic Herald staff

Our Lady of the Lake, Ashland, the school spearheading the effort to establish a blended virtual/online Catholic high school in the Diocese of Superior, will pave the way for other Catholic schools looking to offer education alternatives in their own communities.

With the blessing of the Diocese of La Crosse, Regis High School, Eau Claire, is partnering with the Diocese of Superior to launch a ninth-grade class at Our Lady of the Lake this fall. McDonell High School, Chippewa Falls, is expected to eventually join them.

Diocesan superintendent Peggy Schoenfuss has been working with Mark Gobler, president of Regis Catholic Schools, to build the program.

A couple months ago, Schoenfuss anticipated starting the high school with as few as five students. The first class will be even smaller.

“Right now we only have one registration, which is okay,” Schoenfuss said.

“We’re really happy with that,” Gobler added. “This is the trial run. We wanted to do ninth grade. Probably the best would be five, but one is better than none.”

In September, the student will enter ninth grade in Ashland, but will technically be working toward a diploma from Regis. The 10th-grade program is expected to launch in fall 2016.

Our Lady of the Lake School principal Betty Swiston taught eighth grade for five years before she was promoted last year.

“I think the process began because of dialogue between parents of graduating eighth-graders,” she said.

The school formed an ad hoc committee to study the feasibility of adding a virtual high school; in November 2014, they contacted Schoenfuss to discuss the possibility.

Schools were invited to send surveys to local families in an attempt to gauge interest in a new program. The Ashland community was the most responsive, according to Swiston. Nearly 60 surveys were returned; all but one supported starting a local Catholic high school.

Less than one year later, the new, blended program is ready.

Partnership forms

Regis officials were already considering the expansion of their online school when Schoenfuss contacted them.

“This will be our initial venture into this area. This was something we thought about previously, but we didn’t really think about

launching this for another year,” Gobler said.

They decided to explore the idea, and after receiving approval from the Diocese of La Crosse’s superintendent of schools and Regis’ governing body, the dioceses and schools were ready to implement it.

With the enrollment of their first pupil, the journey begins.

Gobler worked for schools in Amery and Luck before moving to Eau Claire a couple of years ago, so he’s familiar with online education in a public school context.

He doesn’t claim to be a technology buff.

“Technically, I’m not up to snuff,” he added. “I always relied on my IT people.”

Student success is more his concern, and what he has observed is not all students are suited to self-directed studies.

“Students should have some level of maturity and be able to work independently,” he added.

Before they enroll in the program, students must fill out a survey to determine whether online education is a good fit. The family meets with the principal for a discussion of the pupil’s suitability, and he or she must also have a recommendation from the parish school.

When those requirements are satisfied, the student is provided with a laptop, a menu of class options and a virtual window into Regis’ classrooms.

The program

Regis’ blended program pairs core classes through Odysseyware, a secular online school, with in-house religion classes. Students learning in diocesan Catholic schools will use the same system, and they will connect remotely – which allows face-to-face interaction – for some classes.

High school students in the blended program will have more than 60 faith-based, career and technical electives from which to choose, which Schoenfuss confirmed is a significantly broader spectrum than local public schools can offer.

In Ashland, ninth-grade students will take the bus to school in the morning, connect remotely for religion and U.S. history courses, do online coursework under supervision until lunchtime, and go home at 12:30 p.m. and continue working independently.

Music and physical education will be provided through Our Lady of the Lake School, and a service learning component through Regis or McDonell will be added as enrollment increases.

Extracurriculars are “a little more difficult,” Gobler admitted. To join WIAA sports, students must be full-time. The school determines each student’s status, which affords them some flexibility. However, geography is the limiting factor in team sports, and he’s not sure how individual sports would work, either.

Gobler said the school will continue to study the situation.

In the meantime, there are some activities – clubs, forensics, field trips, school events – remote students can join immediately. Regis wants to develop programs that include a daylong trip to the school; this year, for example, they’ve invited a Catholic artist, a former Lutheran minister, to perform.

“They would be invited to participate in those things,” he added.

In her letter to the community, Swiston outlined local opportunities for students, which include club sports and musical instruction. High-schoolers will also be required to adhere to dress codes, attend the weekly school Mass, adhere to the code of conduct and cell phone policy and participate in any other activities the principal deems appropriate.

For the time being, only Regis will be partnering with diocesan schools, but as the program expands, they envision incorporating faculty from McDonell, who will also teach the remote access classes.

“So we’re not overburdening our faculty … we want to work together with McDonell,” Gobler said.

McDonell’s 48-mile distance from St. Joseph School, Rice Lake, makes that partnership particularly attractive, he added.

The program is also something of a pilot for the Diocese of La Crosse, according to Gobler. Although the diocese has several Catholic high schools, many smaller Catholic schools cannot offer a nearby high school, and they are interested in forging that link.

“We’re going to launch it and see what happens,” Gobler said.

Bricks and mortar

Randy Stanke, principal of St. Anne Catholic School, Somerset, was another proponent of opening a Catholic high school in the Diocese of Superior. Surveys returned in his town, however, indicated demand for a more traditional institution.

“Based on recent surveys, families in our school and area are interested in a Catholic high school, either a ‘stand-alone’ campus or one that is associated with an existing Catholic school.

“However,” he added, “the interest is mostly in a ‘full-blown’ Catholic high school – one that will meet the interests and needs of students. This will include not only academics but extracurricular activities.”

Although Schoenfuss is unsure the dream of a bricks-and-mortar Catholic high school will ever be realized, both Swiston and Stanke agree adding a high school option will strengthen Catholic education in the diocese.

“Parents are usually more inclined to enroll their children in a Catholic school, and keep them enrolled in a K-8 Catholic school, if they have the option of continuing their Catholic education through 12th grade in a Catholic high school,” Stanke explained.

“Families that want the Catholic option and values for high school would be able to continue,” Swiston added.

Schoenfuss said the partnership with Regis may also afford elementary-only Catholic schools the possibility of adding middle school grades, an option already in the planning stages.

One benefit of the blended high school is the ease with which it can be incorporated into existing K-8 schools.

Our Lady of the Lake will hire support staff to supervise high school students, Swiston said, but they won’t need teachers because faculty is provided.

The only other immediate need is a room, which the school has already set aside for the program. She anticipates the high school could someday accommodate 20 students, which she believes could be accomplished at minimal cost.

Still, tuition is around $3,500, more than parents pay for their children’s K-8 education, and surveys from the Ashland community indicated the higher cost could be a deterrent for some families.

Scholarships will be offered through local schools rather than the diocese, Schoenfuss said.

In a June letter to parents, Swiston and Fr. Paul Pare, pastor of Our Lady of the Lake, said they were seeking grants for those in need of financial assistance.

Duty and mission

It’s a busy time for Regis administration. In mid-July, Gobler was training new employees, preparing for an upcoming audit and getting ready for the start of the school year.

Regis principal Paul Pedersen and the information technology coordinator plan to make the 165-mile trek from Eau Claire to Ashland to meet the new student, answer any questions and provide a laptop, Gobler said.

Schoenfuss’ call, and the resulting launch of the blended high school, all came rather suddenly, and as the program progresses, Regis officials will be exploring “if they should just go to the charter school route” and move toward establishing it as a separate accredited entity.

But, that’s all in the future. Their primary concern is getting the new high school off the ground.

“Right now, everything is accredited,” he added. The program “will take time to progress.”
Schoenfuss, too, is waiting to see how things unfold.

“We just don’t know what’s going to be expected,” she added. “We’re just taking it day by day.”

Other Catholic school principals in the diocese are watching, too, Schoenfuss said. She is unsure which schools, if any, plan to launch their own programs.

“I’m not even sure how many promoted it (the blended high school) for sure,” she commented. “We’ll talk about it in August.”

Gobler understands the lack of a Catholic high school in the diocese is a significant void, one that has disadvantaged families for decades.

“If we can fill that – hopefully, we can – I think it’s part of our mission, our duty, to see what we can provide,” he said.

Anyone interested in learning more about the blended high school program can
contact Schoenfuss at 715-234-5044 or call their local Catholic school.