The Compass: Official Newspaper of the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay
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August 10, 2001 Issue
Special Section:
College/Back to School

Mission accomplished by ACES director

By Joanne Flemming
Compass Correspondent

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 dreamed of.

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 education."

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 make."

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 students share.

"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 is risky."

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 School.

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 patient."

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 yourself."

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.

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