College/Back to School
Mission accomplished by ACES director
By Joanne Flemming
The merger of Appleton's Catholic Education System this year with
Xavier High School completes the vision Bill O'Brien, ACES
executive director, had for Appleton's Catholic schools 16 years
ago. He has concluded that the reality has far exceeded what he
O'Brien steps down as ACES director at the end of this month. Sr.
Patrice Hughes, SC, is the new president of the merged systems.
ACES celebrated O'Brien's contributions to it and Appleton with a
"Bill O'Brien Day" at the end of May.
He recently reminisced about those 16 years by pointing out that
he didn't want the ACES job when it was first offered to him back
in early 1986.
He stated that he came to Appleton in 1985 to become Xavier's
principal. When four of the pastors from Appleton's eight
parishes approached him at the end of the first semester about
creating a Catholic education system, he said "no."
His first love was secondary education, he said, explaining his
answer. He had enjoyed his few months at Xavier and was looking
forward to more.
Then one of the Catholic elementary principals asked him to be
part of a team evaluating her school. "What I observed indicated
to me personally that if something wasn't done at the primary
schools, our secondary schools may not be there because the
quality was not there." He was especially discouraged by the poor
performances he saw in math and science.
After that experience, O'Brien called the four priests back and
said he would reconsider their offer if they gave him the
opportunity to do an independent study course at St. Norbert's
College in De Pere during the summer. During this he researched
and designed what he called "a system approach to Catholic
He presented his design that fall to the Xavier school board. He
explained that traditional Catholic education is built like a
pyramid with the parish and pastor at the top. The parish owns
the school, and the pastor hires and fires the principal.
What he had designed was a collaborative approach. "How do you
get people to experience the worth of Catholic schools?" he
asked. "My conclusion was you have to get them actively involved
in most facets of the organizational structure in order for them
to truly experience the significant difference these schools can
O'Brien suggested the creation of a board with the eight pastors
and eight lay representatives from each Appleton parish. Working
under the board would be committees for finance, curriculum,
policy, personnel and religion. Members would also be drawn from
the eight parishes.
"In my eyes, (this system) was symbolic of the Body of Christ.
Each part had a unique responsibility. All were working together
in one body to bring about a solid school system," he said.
He added that the significant difference Catholic schools have is
the common value system the administration, staff, parents and
"Christ said it all when He said love is the value," the ACES
director said. "Love is the thing that brings us together. If we
are loved, we are not afraid to take a chance or a risk. Learning
O'Brien served as facilitator for the new board and its
committees. He continued to serve as Xavier's principal for a
while; at one point, he was even principal of St. Joseph's Middle
He recalled putting in 16 and 17-hour days. "I don't know how I
did it. I really think it was the Holy Spirit," he added.
The middle school was created first. This allowed the new system
to bring together the strong points in various schools' programs
in one building.
"We'd determine the success of the program by how well students
did in the two areas where they were the weakest-math and
science," said O'Brien.
If test scores are any indicator, the new system has succeeded
because St. Joe students have ranked at the top for the last two
years in science and math on the WASA assessment tests the state
requires schools to give.
The elementary schools were combined into ACES two years after
the middle school was created. According to O'Brien, it started
with 226 students; three years ago it had 1,722. More than 500
students have registered for the fall at St. Joe's.
Facing the challenge that arose from getting the eight parishes
to work together taught him patience, he said. "I'm a rather
anxious person. It has taken a lot of wisdom to sit back and be
patient. Through the evolution of ACES, I've become much more
He said that he has also learned to be a better listener and to
keep life balanced. That has meant "realizing the Lord is there
and allowing him to help you. You don't have to do it all
O'Brien further summed up ACES' success by saying: "I'm really
proud of the fact that we are beyond survival and we're now
thriving. I think we're a leader. We are capable of doing very,
very good things."
For the next three years, he will work with the Appleton public
schools under an $800,000 grant for the establishment of four
community centers for "at-risk" elementary and middle school
students. The centers will offer after-school activities for the
children and evening programs for their parents.