On any given day, students at St. Joseph Catholic Academy in Kenosha might be speaking Mandarin Chinese, Italian, French or Spanish, studying from their personal laptops, or meeting with a campus minister to discuss faith issues.
Not too surprising for a group of high school students, right?
However, these are middle school students, and this K-12 school has become a model for Catholic education across the county.
In its first year as a K-12 school, St. Joseph Academy has changed Catholic education. While the Catholic educational system in the United States is suffering financial setbacks and closing or merging parish schools, St. Joseph Academy reflects a new era in successful collaborative community education.
Following more than 20 years of committees, task forces and debates regarding the future of Catholic education in the Kenosha area, St. Joseph Academy formed in the 2010-11 school year with the merging of the 53-year-old St. Joseph High School, St. Joseph Inter-parish Junior High and the recently closed St. Mark Elementary School. According to president Robert Freund, the transformation was a period of intense difficulty, but the school has not only survived, but also thrived beyond its expectations.
“This was not an easy process at all for anyone, especially for our teachers,” he said. “At the directives of the archdiocese, all of our staff had to reapply and we had very negative feedback among the community. We interviewed based on Archbishop (Jerome E.) Listecki’s requirements that our staff needed to have a heavy duty Catholic identity and our interviewer’s questions reflected this. Through the process we came up with the most qualified candidates to staff our school.”
With many new teachers and staff members hired at the academy, the public was wary, but what happened afterward stunned everyone, especially St. Joseph’s new principal, Edward Kovochich.
“The community was shocked and waited to see if we could deliver on our promise to have so many excellent resources such as fine arts, performing arts, languages, advanced technology, sports, campus ministry, counselors, and our new electronic curriculum,” he said. “We dotted all the I’s and crossed all the T’s and gave all our middle school students laptop computers, trained our staff in advanced technology and our enrollment has grown.”
Since the formation of the academy, enrollment has jumped to 659, more than 20 percent in all grade levels, and the trend is expected to continue. There are 485 students enrolled in grades 6 to 12 at the upper campus, and 174 students enrolled in the lower grades.
“The parents have been so excited about the way the school is headed, the courses, the technology, but most of all the Catholic identity at St. Joseph’s Academy,” said Freund. “We are giving many tours of the school and continue to see a significant spike in enrollment. Next year we will have laptops for all students in grades 6-12, and many of the courses are being written by our teaching staff, which eliminates the purchase of textbooks. The community reaction has been ‘bravo’ and surprising to both Ed and me because the entire transition was so painful. But we are happy with this new school year, what we are able to offer and look forward to growing and making this a better school each year.”
To assist St. Joseph Academy with the transition, Freund worked with members of University of Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE) to develop St. Joseph into a model of education.
This mission of ACE, which began in 1993, is to strengthen and sustain Catholic schools. The organization, honored by the White House, and emulated by other universities, seeks to engage people who are passionate about meeting the needs of under-resourced elementary and secondary Catholic schools around the world. Since its inception, the program has become widely known among hundreds of Catholic dioceses.
Part of the program includes formation for teachers and administrators seeking to become better leaders, building language programs, participating in federal grant programs, and collaborating concerns among Catholic educators to achieve a promising outcome.
“We met in person four times with ACE representatives on site; we have also teleconferenced with them, and met with our school steering committee and transition teams to begin the process to form St. Joseph High School, St. Joseph Inter-parish High School and St. Mark’s into St. Joseph’s Academy. They were very helpful in keeping us on track and providing a governance to curriculum and a road map for us that was focused, neutral and unbiased. It has really kept us on target to develop an excellent product,” said Freund.
Watching the outcome of this transition in a community where at one time, nearly every parish had a school, to creating a successful collaborative model for Catholic education was Jesuit Fr. John Belmonte, former principal of Marquette University High School in Milwaukee, and now superintendent of Catholic schools in the Diocese of Joliet, Il.
“He has spoken with Ed and is interested in coming to see our school, our program, and is looking to implement something similar in the Diocese of Joliet,” said Freund. “He wants to bring in a contingency of educators, look at our shared resources, world language, laptops and heavy duty technological training we have. He particularly likes our approach to staff using e-books rather than textbooks because it saves money and makes the laptops a significant investment for the future.”
In addition, members of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, Texas are interested in learning about the Kenosha academy’s approach to Catholic education and partnered with ACE to observe what ACE advocate director, Chuck Lamphier, states about St. Joseph Catholic Academy.
“They are a new brand of Catholic education that exemplifies a Catholic identity and 21st century learning themes,” he said, in a recent report. “St. Joseph Academy will become a flagship for Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee as well as becoming a national model for unifying multiple schools and supporting parishes in a PreK-12 educational model.”
For Kovochich, who is accustomed to older students as his previous employment includes serving as principal of Dominican Catholic High School, Milwaukee, joining forces with a K-12 Catholic system has been an enjoyable experience.
“I hadn’t worked with these lower grades before. What a ride,” he said. “I love walking into the classrooms and having these daily learning locks in my mind. To walk into a grade eight theology class and see all of the eighth graders annotating on a big screen, doing comparisons and contrasts for the Gospel of Luke, discussing it, and learning that way is incredible. There is a rigor being taught, but with an application and analysis and engaging of the kids that I have never seen.”