APPLETON — Other than kindergarten and first grade, Matt Reynebeau has spent his entire educational and working career in Catholic schools. He attended St. John School in Little Chute and was a member of its last high school graduating class in 1973. He got a math degree from the University of Notre Dame and his master’s degree in private school administration from the University of San Francisco.
Reynebeau’s first job out of college was teaching math and physics at Xavier High School in Appleton. He had the idea at the time that he would teach for five years and then go into business like the rest of his family. Those five years came and went and he continued teaching, then took on the role of dean of students. In 1989 he became principal of Xavier.
After 25 years in the position, Reynebeau, 59, is retiring at the end of this school year. “You think after you do it a number of years it gets easier but it gets more difficult. You keep thinking of things you want to do and you should do and you never subtract anything,” said Reynebeau.
Being the principal of a Catholic high school is a demanding job. Not only does it involve administrative work but it requires skills in areas like marketing, recruiting and human resources. The most important job for Reynebeau has been hiring the right people because “a school can have a great facility but if you want to provide students with a good education you need to have good teachers.”
Reynebeau noted that, while a positive culture has always existed at Xavier, he’s seen a change in the student population. “I think that our students over the last 15 or 20 years have gotten much more academically and goal-oriented. They want to make sure they get good grades and get involved so they have strong resumes to get into the colleges of their choice,” he said. “How hard they are willing to work has improved us as a school in general. Our ACT scores reflect that.”
The school has become much more diverse through the years. Xavier has a student population representing more than a dozen countries. “There’s a lot of value to that. It allows our students to be exposed to the culture of those students and vice versa. It just gives us more diversity and it helps our enrollment.”
The student count was as low as 350 in the mid-1980s but is now close to 600.
Many things stand out for Reynebeau when he thinks back on his years at Xavier. One of the first things he did when he became principal was institute the mandatory service requirement for all students. Other memorable events include the building of the fine arts center, the expansion and remodeling of the school in 2006, Xavier being named one of the top 50 best Catholic high schools in the United States every year since 2007, the implementation of the program where students bring their own technology devices to school, Project Lead the Way, which offers engineering and biomedical science courses at the school, and all the championships the various sporting teams and clubs have earned through the years — enough so that one hallway in the building has been christened State Street.
In the last few years, Xavier has offered students more opportunities to earn college credits through AP classes and dual credits with UW-Fox Valley, UW-Oshkosh and St. Norbert College. The average Xavier student graduates with 10 college credits. One student this year is graduating with 51 credits.
“Students are starting their freshman year of college with a sophomore status. It can get them through college faster because they can select their classes before the normal freshmen,” noted Reynebeau.
When school ends on June 6, Reynebeau plans on walking out with the students to start the next phase of his life. He intends to become an active community volunteer and then follow the Reynebeau family tradition.
“I built a brand by accident by delivering cookies to all the Catholic school students during Catholic Schools Week and baking thousands of cookies during the Food Fair each year. I want to take advantage of that and start a business selling Mr. Reynebeau Chocolate Chip Cookies.”
Reynebeau said he will be back at the school for concerts, games and plays, but he’ll miss the daily interaction with the kids. “I try to have a positive impact on as many kids as I can in terms of teaching them what our faith is, what basically is right and wrong,” he said. “Some students you get to know better than others because they get in trouble and you get the opportunity to have more impact on them. Those are the kids actually who’ve I’ve enjoyed working with more than anybody else because you feel like you make a connection with them, one-on-one.”
Reynebeau said that faith has always been foremost at the school.
“I wouldn’t be here except that it’s a Catholic school. I feel like being at Xavier we offer the academics to attract kids but it gives us the opportunity once they’re here to share our faith with them. One of the last things I’m initiating right now is to put up a crucifix in the gathering space so that when people walk in the door, that’s going to be one of the first impressions they have.”