Could return to past model help small Catholic schools remain vital today? Print
Our Catholic Schools
Thursday, Nov. 12, 2015 -- 12:00 AM

At this time each year, the Office of Catholic Schools collects data detailing the state of Catholic schools in the Diocese of Madison.

When looking at data from the past few years, we have seen some exciting trends, such as the addition of grades six to eight at three different schools, the addition of three-year-old pre-school programs at several schools, and marked enrollment increases at several Catholic schools in Dane County.

These positive signs indicate growing enrollment and a focus on continuous improvement and development. While growth comes with certain challenges, it is a reason for great hope for the future of Catholic schools.

While this growth is exciting and encouraging, many Catholic schools, especially those in rural communities, are facing a different set of challenges: how to remain vital and vibrant in communities where the general population is shrinking, leaving an ever smaller pool of students from which to draw.

Facing challenges

One school in such a community that is facing this challenge head-on is St. John the Baptist in Princeton, under the leadership of Fr. Dale Grubba.

As the pastor of a parish with a small, Catholic school for well over a decade, Father Grubba experienced firsthand the challenges of operating a small, Catholic school in a rural community.

Having a background in education and holding a master's degree in educational administration, Father Grubba often wondered whether the school could be restructured to retain the critical elements of Catholic education while better addressing the pressures of a dwindling population and resources.

Several years ago, when the school principal retired, Father Grubba decided to begin this restructuring by assuming the role of school principal himself. Blessed with abundant energy and an innovative mind combined with his background in education and a deep passion for Catholic schools, Father Grubba immediately began seeking to answer the question, "How do you maintain excellence in Catholic identity, exceptional academic learning, and an unwavering commitment to the education of the whole child in an atmosphere of dwindling amounts of students and resources?"

One-room schools

Recently, this continuing quest to remain relevant and vital in the future led Father Grubba back to our past as he began to consider whether or not the old, seemingly outmoded model of the one-room school house might hold the key to the future vitality of small, rural, Catholic schools.

While the notion of a one-room school may conjure nostalgic images of Laura and Mary Ingalls and Miss Beadle from the 1970s television series Little House on the Prairie, in fact, a century ago almost every child in the United States was educated in one of the nearly 200,000 one-room schools across the nation.

Although greater industrialization and migration to cities after World War I spawned the creation of the larger schools of today, there are still nearly 200 operating one-room schools in the United States, several of which are in the neighboring state of Michigan.

Visit to Michigan school

Last May, I accompanied Father Grubba, along with teachers and educators from St. John the Baptist, to visit one of these operating one-room schools in Strange, Mich.

At the time we visited, the school enrolled 10 students, though in recent years it has had as many as 20.

While the school enrolls grades kindergarten to eight, it does not have a principal, employing only a teacher and an aide. Consequently, we had many questions about logistics, daily operations, and how the teacher effectively instructs students across such a wide range of grades as well as completing administrative duties in compliance with district and state regulations.

Throughout the day we were able to talk with a board member and a parent, and the teacher, as well as observe classroom instruction.

Although the physical setting was indeed a 19th century, one-room building, the curriculum and instructional methods were undoubtedly 21st century, with individualized lessons, iPads, and electronic texts replacing the chalk slates and common textbooks of the past.

The school was clearly a tight-knit community of learners, as older students assisted younger ones, and younger ones learned more than their own lessons, often overhearing the lessons of the older students and then discussing among themselves what the "big kids" were learning.

Much to consider

After a very full day, there was much to ponder. Could we apply what we had learned, to St. John the Baptist Catholic School? Would such an integration of technology and excellent pedagogy as we had witnessed allow more of our rural Catholic schools to remain as vibrant and vital centers of faith and learning in their communities despite changing demographics and shrinking populations?

Could the one-room school model allow us to continue to provide unparalleled Catholic education in rural communities?

We continue to seek answers and probe for new possibilities while we affirm our unfailing commitment to support and promote Catholic schools so that we may ensure that Catholic schools are available, affordable, and accessible to all who desire a Catholic school education.

As always, thank you for reading and may God continue to bless you and your families.

Michael Lancaster is superintendent of Catholic schools for the Diocese of Madison.