By Karen Mahoney
Special to your Catholic Herald
KENOSHA – Officials from two Kenosha Catholic schools recently announced plans to consolidate St. Therese and Our Lady of Mt. Carmel elementary schools into one school this fall.
The new school, Mt. Carmel-St. Therese, will serve kindergarten through sixth grade and will address declining enrollment, escalating operating costs and rising tuition. Students from Mt. Carmel School will move to St. Therese School, 2020 91st St.
The action followed discussions between Fr. Michael Nowak, pastor of St. Therese Parish and Benedictine Fr. Donald Gibbs, pastor of Mt. Carmel Parish.
“Fr. Don and I pretty much looked at each other and wanted to find whatever way we could to salvage Catholic education,” Fr. Nowak said. “Our numbers are down, we struggle with enrollments and the burden on the parishes is excessive. We tried to work together on this to see if we couldn’t kill two birds with one stone on a monetary angle by preserving the schools and keeping Catholic education within our parishes.”
The priests agreed the current economic climate precluded both schools running business as usual, and without the consolidation, one or both schools may have been forced to close their doors.
“Closing our schools is an option that is not acceptable,” Fr. Gibbs said. “We do not desire to close. It is true that one school must close its doors but the parish is committed to this new joint venture and the traditions of both schools will be honored. This action of coming together is a prophetic and bold stance.”
While there will be one principal and one classroom teacher per grade level, the cutbacks are intended to increase enrollment, while lowering tuition costs. The tuition for Mt. Carmel-St. Therese will be $1,995 per year, a decrease of approximately $400 for St. Therese students. Although tuition remains the same for Mt. Carmel students, scholarships will be offered to parishioners to offset costs.
According to Fr. Nowak, the teachers and principals were offered the chance to apply for the teaching positions.
“It’s been hard on the principals and the teachers,” he said “It’s been up in the air for them and we are trying to do the best we can for them.”
Eliott Kramsky from Neenah has been hired as principal, and according to Fr. Nowak, now that he’s on board, his guidance will help with the transition.
With current enrollment at 57 for Mt. Carmel and 75 for St. Therese, closing the Mt. Carmel campus made more sense, as the majority of the students are closer to the St. Therese neighborhood.
The move to the smaller St. Therese location was a decision made without consent or approval of parishioners according to Teresa Belmonte and her sister Matilda Woodbury, lifetime members of Mt. Carmel, whose children and grandchildren attended the parish school.
“I am not as upset about the merger but about the way they chose to move to St. Therese,” said Belmonte. “Our school is much better because we have bigger classrooms, lighting, gardens, a nice hall and bigger kitchen and nicer playground. No one was notified of this and nothing was done together.”
Woodbury felt the merger was unnecessary and questioned the decision.
“No one tried to keep our school open. I am heartbroken over this and will miss the children’s Masses; their Masses are beautiful and now all that is gone. I never missed one because the kids were learning so much about the love of God at these Masses – even the teachers cry at how sweet they are. I don’t know what possessed people to do this. They just think about the money.”
Despite the years of sacrifice by both parishes to offer Catholic education, the change from independent parish schools to consolidated schools has created mixed feelings, but the decision was not solely about money, said Fr. Gibbs, but it was about providing the best quality education for their students.
“Of course, not everyone is happy with the outcome and my decision, and Mt. Carmel people feel the sting,” he said. “Having the ‘best’ facility was not the only consideration in selecting the site; growing the school, potential areas from which to draw students and the willingness of parents to cooperate were also considered.”
Fr. Gibbs has received some backlash due to the decision to close Mt. Carmel, but for each negative and hurtful remark, he is comforted by the words of encouragement and support he has received.
“The negative and hurtful ones have been personal attacks. I feel very badly about that. I hope those who think badly of me will pray for me. Change can produce uncertainty and few of us like that feeling,” he said. “There is grieving that needs to be done and this takes time and God’s grace. Jesus used the image of a grain of wheat that must die in order to produce new life. We take his words seriously and trust in the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit. We believe our grief, our surrender, will produce life and generate hope for all concerned. To be alive and grow is to change; life is a series of changes.”
He explained that with the help of the archdiocesan Office for Catholic Schools, a new school board has been formed.
“Parents and other interested parishioners are being invited to participate in the many board committees. These committees will be where most of the work will be done and recommendations made to the full board,” Fr. Gibbs said.
Although the decision to consolidate the two schools may be new to Kenosha, it is a trend affecting Catholic schools across the nation. While the economic times are difficult, both priests trust the Holy Spirit will continue to lead and guide them to creative and appropriate ways to preserve Catholic education.
“We are not alone in our quest for a viable future for Catholic education. Will there be need for additional changes?” questioned Fr. Gibbs. “I have no crystal ball, but I believe there will be need for wider and stronger collaboration in the future. We of Mt. Carmel and St. Therese look forward to such open and honest dialogue and collaboration.”
As for the Mt. Carmel School building, the preschool program, which is housed there, is expected to continue its growth. Additionally, the vacant classrooms offer an opportunity to expand the religious education program, including adult formation.
“I see no reason not to make this the location for religious formation,” said Fr. Nowak. “I could see this for kindergarten through RCIA – everything.”
Fr. Gibbs agreed, and added that Mt. Carmel is still in the ministry of faith development and on-going formation.
“Our school will be well used,” he said. “This is a time of new beginnings. It is a time when we will bring together the best practices from both parish traditions. Catholic schools enjoy a well-earned reputation for exceptional quality. Along with our parents, we prepare students to live the Gospel in today’s world. Excellence in both faith formation and academic learning is our goal.”
St. Joseph to add 6th grade in fall
By Karen Mahoney
Special to your Catholic Herald
KENOSHA – After more than 50 years serving Catholic high school students and 21 years serving seventh and eighth graders, St. Joseph High and Interparish Junior High add a sixth grade next fall.
According to Robert Freund, principal of the school, adding sixth grade might be a precursor to an eventual K-12 collaborative Catholic education system in Kenosha County.
“We already have Mt. Carmel-St. Therese collaborating efforts, and we’ve been approached over the last number of years about the ability to add a sixth grade component to our interparish junior high.”
Several months ago, St. Mark’s Parish council approached Freund about moving its sixth grade students to St. Joseph School. The school board unanimously approved the addition with hopes for more collaboration in the future.
“We hope to begin articulation talk next year with St. Mark to create a K-12 Catholic educational system and environment,” said Freund. “It wouldn’t be all in the same building, but we would plan to align the curriculum.”
Merging the curriculum for all grades makes sense, according to Freund who believes that creating grade specific educational benchmarks is the key to long-term success.
“Another nice aspect is that because the sixth through eighth grades are located in the same building as the high school, they will have access to more resources than they would in their smaller Catholic elementary schools,” he said. “We have computer tech, science and resources labs, and full availability of full time physical education, art, band and things like that.”
Also aware of the mounting difficulty for parishes to support their own schools, Freund is excited to bring as many resources together as possible to create the finest Catholic educational system possible.
“We want the kids to experience success,” he said, “And hopefully, we can keep all that at the table with articulation talks and see what transpires – we wait and see.”