Appleton Catholic school system prepares for more changes

By Jeff Kurowski | The Compass | May 14, 2014

Restructured campuses designed to provide sustainable Catholic education

APPLETON — Deacon Ray DuBois, president of the St. Francis Xavier Catholic School System, points to a conversation two years ago as affirmation that rebranding the former ACES Xavier Educational System was necessary. Deacon DuBois, who was new to the position at the time, introduced himself by name and title to a woman at St. Bernard Parish in Appleton. The woman replied, “We don’t have a school here.”

Deacon Ray DuBois (File photo by Sam Lucero | The Compass)
Deacon Ray DuBois (File photo by Sam Lucero | The Compass)

“I knew how much subsidy St. Bernard paid and I knew kids from that parish who were at every level of the school system — elementary, middle school and high school,” said Deacon DuBois. “I thought to myself, ‘You do have a school. It’s not physically on site here, but the school is as much a part of St. Bernard Parish as is it for the parish that is on site over at St. Pius.’ We were kind of losing that connection when we referred to each of those elementary schools by the name of the parish.”

Using the St. Francis Xavier name across all school segments was the first step in a new system initiative announced more than a year ago. Forthcoming changes for the 2014-2015 school year will include one elementary school at two campuses, reduced from four this year, and restructuring the middle school with the addition of the fifth grade students to grades 6-8.

The new name, the only structural change for the 2013-2014 school year, was the easy part, said Deacon DuBois.

“Number one, we are a Catholic school,” he said. “That’s where we start. That’s what drives everything we do. We are named after St. Francis Xavier. We are Catholic and are going to brand ourselves as Catholic. Everyone is going to know that if you’re coming into this school system, that it’s Catholic.”

School system announces

leadership changes

APPLETON — The St. Francis Xavier Catholic School System announced its educational leadership team, effective July 1.

Todd Blahnik will serve as director of Catholic educational services. He has been a Catholic school administrator for 16 years, 12 of which have been as school principal, most recently at St. Ignatius Martyr Catholic School in Austin, Texas.

Prior to moving to Texas in 2005, he was the principal of Our Lady of Mount Carmel School on the island of Saipan in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. In his new role, Blahnik will be responsible for collaborative development of system-wide curriculum and instruction, incorporating Catholic identity across the curriculum, staff development, assessment of student learning and accreditation.He will also supervise the four campus principals.

Blahnik was born and raised in Door County, where his parents still reside. His wife, Crystal, will be joining St. Bernard Catholic School in Green Bay this fall as principal. They have four children. His brother, Fr. Jason Blahnik, a priest of the Diocese of Green Bay, is assigned to the Newman Center at UW-Oshkosh.

Mike Mauthe will serve as principal, St. Francis Xavier High School. Mauthe is currently principal at Lourdes Academy in Oshkosh. Prior to joining Lourdes, he was a member of the Xavier High School community for 16 years as a teacher and coach. While at Xavier, Mauthe received a Kohl Fellowship for excellence in education.

During his tenure as the varsity boys and girls tennis coach from 1997 to 2011, Xavier won 17 conference championships, six sectional titles and two state championships. Mauthe is an active member of St. Patrick Parish, Menasha, where he once served as youth minister.

Dave Callan will be the new principal at St. Francis Xavier Middle School. Callan has been a Catholic school educator and administrator since 1979, most recently as principal, St. Francis Xavier Elementary School, McDonald Street campus. He has been an educator in the system since 1999. He previously served in several positions at St. Mary Central High School, Neenah/Menasha.

In addition, he has worked extensively with several committees of the Diocese of Green Bay’s Department of Education. He is an active member of St. Pius X Parish, Appleton.

Laura Barnett is currently in her second year as principal at the St. Francis Xavier Elementary School Marquette Street campus, and will remain in that position. Previously, she served as principal in the Stevens Point Area Catholic Schools and St. Clare School in Wrightstown.

Barnett lives in Stevens Point with her husband, Andrew, and is an active member of St. Bronislava Parish, Plover. They have three grown sons and three grandchildren.

Carol Wilant will serve as principal, St. Francis Xavier Elementary School, McDonald Street Campus. For the past four years, Wilant has been principal at St. Francis Xavier Elementary School, State Street campus (Catholic Central). She has 22 years of experience as a teacher at Catholic schools in Wisconsin and Illinois, and as a Catholic school principal in South Dakota and Minnesota.

She has participated in several accreditation teams, most recently at Holy Spirit Catholic School in Darboy. Wilant received her bachelor’s degree from Cardinal Stritch University and master’s degree in educational administration from Dominican University. She and her husband, Mark, are active members of St. Mary Parish, Appleton. They have two grown daughters.

The process of changing from four elementary school campuses to two had potential for pitfalls, explained Deacon DuBois. The Marquette Street and McDonald Street sites, the former St. Pius X and St. Thomas More schools, respectively, will serve students in grades pre-K through fourth. The Lourdes Drive and State Street school buildings, located at the parish sites of St. Bernadette and St. Mary, respectively, will no longer be used.

“People at both of these schools, both of these parishes, were going through that whole grieving process,” said Deacon DuBois. “It’s something that had a long history with them and their families. Now, it wasn’t going to be there the same way it used to be. I know that, as we went into this process, we really sought the help, support and prayers of the pastors at both of these places and they’ve been terrific.”

Deacon DuBois emphasized that the decision to move to two campuses was not financially based.

“It was never something we had to do so we could survive,” he said. “This has been about what is the best way we can provide quality, sustainable Catholic education 50 years from now.”

At each of the locations, there will be two sections for each grade. In the four-campus format, some grades had only seven or eight kids at particular sites.

Registration for the elementary school grades opened on Feb. 1 on a first-come, first-serve basis.

“What we weren’t going to do is say ‘Everyone who is at Marquette Street is going to stay at Marquette Street, and everyone who is at McDonald Street is going to stay at McDonald,’” explained Deacon DuBois. “That wasn’t going to be fair to the students from Lourdes Drive or State Street.”

Some parents lined up as early as 4:30 a.m. to register. The process proved to be fair and successful as 98.6 percent of families secured their first choice placements, said Deacon DuBois. Seven families originally did not get their top choice. That number has since been reduced to only four students out of 1,600 not getting their top selection.

Deacon Tony Abts, principal at St. Francis Xavier Middle School and superintendent for the system, coordinated the restructuring of faculty. For example, similar to the situation with the students, just because an educator served at Marquette Street didn’t mean that the teacher would remain at that campus. The goal was to get an equal number of teachers from the four campuses at the two sites.

“Almost half of our kids are going to be at a campus next year that they weren’t at this year,” said Deacon DuBois. “The very least we want is, when they walk in the door, is to see the friendly face of a teacher they recognize.”

Pastors from the eight Appleton parishes will rotate celebrating the all-school Masses for the two campuses as another way to build the city-wide Catholic school experience.

“It’s worked out at the middle school and high school,” said Deacon DuBois. “The students get a kick out of their pastor celebrating Mass at their school.”

Positions for six current teachers will not be available for the 2014-2015 school year. The administration worked with Dr. Joe Bound, diocesan director of education, and John Reetz, diocesan superintendent of schools, to identify schools around the diocese where there was a need for teachers.

“We provided a very good exit package, including a lot of outplacement support in terms of recommendations and references,” said Deacon DuBois. “If we have additional retirements or teachers moving out of the area, we will obviously give those folks first preference.”

The layout of St. Francis Xavier Middle School allows for fifth and sixth grade students to be housed in the same part of the building and share the same lunch period and seventh and eighth grade students to be in the same area. The building will also provide some new educational advantages for the fifth graders.

“When you look at the science facilities for our fifth grade kids, our elementary schools don’t have science rooms and lab facilities that exist at the middle school, which is a former high school (Fox Valley Lutheran),” said Deacon DuBois.

Moving forward, challenges include filling some key positions. Deacon Abts has been appointed diocesan director of the diaconate. The middle school principal and superintendent positions will be separate. Deacon DuBois explained that the superintendent position will be changed to director of Catholic education services and oversee the Catholic identity throughout the system and professional development of faculty.

A new principal at St. Francis Xavier High School is needed following the retirement of Matt Reynebeau. Donna Fahrenkrug is stepping down as associate principal at the high school, but will remain in a half-time advisory position. The associate principal search will begin after a principal is in place.

The system is losing some students to the restructuring, said Deacon DuBois. A new transportation hub on the south side of Appleton will provide busing to the two elementary campuses and the middle school, but some families have chosen alternatives. Deacon DuBois added that he supported families on the south side of the city in considering St. Mary School in Menasha and Holy Spirit in Darboy if they were more convenient due to location.

“My thing all along is there are plenty of reasons to go plenty of different places, but I want them in Catholic schools,” he said. “It’s about getting kids and parents totally engaged with Catholic school education.”

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