Small Catholic schools in rural communities find success

By Sam Lucero | The Compass | January 25, 2022

Parish, community support and strong academics help Oconto Falls, Sturgeon Bay schools succeed

Aaron Tomaszewski, an eighth grade student at St. John Bosco School in Sturgeon Bay, builds a robotics platform as part of the school’s Automation and Robotics PLTW Unit. In 2018, the school launched “Project Lead the Way,” a state-of-the-art, hands-on STEM curriculum, (Submitted photo | FOr The Compass)

ALLOUEZ — According to the National Catholic Education Association (NCEA), there are nearly 6,000 Catholic schools in the United States. Of these, approximately 25% serve a population with less than 150 students. 

In the Diocese of Green Bay, two Catholic schools are shining examples of successful faith-based educational programs with small enrollments. St. John Bosco School in Sturgeon Bay is the only Catholic school in Door County and serves 125 students in grades 4K through eighth grade.

The school was established when Corpus Christi School, St. Joseph School and SS. Peter and Paul School (in Institute) were consolidated in 2007, according to Principal Vickie Dassler.

St. Anthony School in Oconto Falls opened its doors in 1913. “Our present facility was built in 2012,” said Principal Sue Beschta. It serves children in grades 3K to fifth grade and has an enrollment of 101 this year.

“In 2017, our enrollment was 83 students,” said Beschta. “A few years ago, we set an attendance goal of 100. It was exciting to meet that goal this year.”

While a small enrollment presents challenges for Catholic schools and their parishes, Beschta said school families “appreciate St. Anthony School’s ability to offer smaller class sizes, which allow for individualized instruction.”

“Our school has a family-like atmosphere, and we offer daily education in the Catholic faith,” she added. “These opportunities can be the determining factors in a family’s decision to enroll their children.”

St. Anthony School preschooler Calvin Coopman poses for a photo with Fr. Greg Parent, pastor of St. Anthony Parish in Oconto Falls. (Submitted photo | FOr The Compass)

“St. Anthony’s is a great example of how a school can grow when you have the principal and pastor working together,” said Lori Paul, advancement director for Catholic Schools for the Diocese of Green Bay. “Fr. Greg Parent, and his predecessor, Fr. Joel Sember, worked directly with Sue Beschta and the school board on creating a plan to grow the school.”

“Throughout the last five years, new families have joined our school community for many different reasons,” said Beschta. “Some families have enrolled their children due to a positive conversation or endorsement from a community member or current school family. Oconto Falls is a small community, so a positive comment or shared school experience does amazing things for our school.”

In addition to small class sizes, a “family-like atmosphere and daily education in the Catholic faith” are other factors in a family’s decision to enroll their children at St. Anthony School, said Beschta.

“Fr. Greg’s passion for Catholic education is contagious,” she added. “He never passes up an opportunity to promote our school and its role in creating lifelong disciples.”

Through its Home and School Association, St. Anthony School is able to raise funds to help with operating expenses, said Beschta. The group sponsors a Christmas wreath sale, a fishing derby and auction each year.

“In the 31 years (serving at) St. Anthony, the parish has been overwhelmingly supportive of our mission,” she said. 

Parishioners “donate to our scholarship and technology fund and athletic programs, take part in fundraising events and participate in our yearly alumni drive. We would cease to exist without the prayers and the support of St. Anthony Parish,” added Beschta.

Dassler said tuition fees at St. John Bosco School cover only a portion of the cost to educate each student. “Because our goal is to keep tuition affordable to our families, we subsidize tuition costs with fundraisers, grants and community support,” she said.

The school has three main fundraisers: a golf outing in the summer, a fundraising mail campaign in the fall and a “Gala of Giving” event in the spring.

“Typically, the spring gala featured a popular in-person event open to school families,” said Dassler. “However, in 2021, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Gala of Giving was transformed into a virtual raffle.” The “Virtual Gala Raffle” turned out to be the most successful gala in the school’s history, she added.

The school also receives financial support from the local parishes (Corpus Christi, St. Joseph and SS. Peter and Paul), as well as community grants and local philanthropists, she said.

Paul said Dassler’s leadership “has always impressed me.”

“She understands the mission and philosophy that was developed for the school and makes decisions based on those foundational beliefs,” Paul added.

During the 2019-2020 school year, St. John Bosco joined the Wisconsin School Choice Program, said Dassler, meaning that a family’s income level no longer precludes enrollment.

“We are excited to announce that, beginning in the 2022-2023 school year, we will expand our 4-year-old preschool program to include an all-day option,” she said. “We believe this option will help attract new families to our school by providing more flexibility and options for full-time working parents.”

The Door County school is also in the early stages of a building expansion, which will include a dedicated art room, renovated music room, additional classrooms and office space.  

Academics are another important selling point for both schools.

“During our annual MAP testing (Measure of Academic Progress), 94% of our students consistently scored above their grade level in math, reading, language arts and science,” said Dassler.

Updated technology has also allowed the school to offer SMART Boards in each classroom, iPads to all students and better instructional materials.

“St. John Bosco is the only school in Door County to offer daily Spanish instruction, beginning in fifth grade,” said Dassler. “As a result, many of our students place in Spanish Level II and III in high school.”

In 2018, the school launched “Project Lead the Way,” a state-of-the-art, hands-on STEM curriculum, which introduces students to careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. 

“St. Anthony families recognize the importance of a school that focuses on academic excellence and faith,” said Beschta. “The goal of our school has always been to see our students thrive academically, but even more importantly, to thrive in their faith by becoming lifelong disciples of Jesus Christ.”

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