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June 2012
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High Marks

By Andy Steiner
Photos By Dawn Villela

The media, though well-meaning, got part of the story wrong, says Sue Heenan Skinner '86, principal at Benilde-St. Margaret's, a Catholic middle school and high school in St. Louis Park, Minnesota.

When a freak hockey injury last December left Benilde sophomore Jack Jablonski paralyzed, members of the national and international press scrambled to cover the tragic accident. In the aftermath, Skinner recalls, "so many reporters commented about how the Benilde community came together to support Jack's family. They all noted how united we were after the incident, how we supported the Jablonskis, and surrounded Jack with love and prayers.

"But what the press missed," she adds, "was that a strong show of support like that isn't unusual at all at Benilde. We're a Catholic school. That's how we do things here."

Skinner was attracted to a career in Catholic education by a strong sense of community and shared mission. "I appreciated that there was a connection among faith, values and education at a Catholic school," she says. "That connection has always made sense to me." Other Katies say they were drawn to Catholic education because it fit their life plan. "I wanted to lead a Catholic life," says Kate Wollan '86, principal of St. Paul's Nativity of Our Lord Catholic School. "This job is the perfect fit."

Historically, St. Catherine University graduates have headed many of the state's Catholic schools, from small K–8 and K–12 programs to larger college-prep institutions such as Benilde. That tradition continues today. St. Kate's grads lead a significant number of the 98 schools in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis — and for the second year running a Katie won the National Distinguished Principal Award from the National Catholic Education Association.

Education vocation: Sue Heenan Skinner '86, principal of Benilde St. Margaret's, was called to a career in education back in fourth grade. "A parish priest gave a homily about vocations and how God gives you a sign," Skinner recalls. "I'd always been attracted to the little red grade book, and I told myself that this was my sign." Skinner served as religion teacher, director of campus ministry and assistant principal at Hill-Murray School, a college prep school in suburban St. Paul, before joining Benilde in 2007.

"A St. Catherine alumna brings something rare and valuable to her work in education," says Martha Frauenheim, superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese. "St. Kate's has very high academic standards. The professors are of the highest quality. Graduates of their programs are strong and well-prepared for careers in Catholic education — and our schools continue to reap rewards from their presence."

Catholic schools in Minnesota are not immune to the stressors facing all private schools, including tuition hikes, dwindling enrollments and shifting student demographics. Thirty-eight of the state's private schools closed in the past three years. About half of those were Catholic schools, according to Jim Field, president of the Minnesota Independent School Forum.

"The world is changing. Students are changing. In most communities, education is not business as usual," Field says. "The Catholic schools that will survive in this century will be headed by educators who can inspire students and families and maintain strong community ties — while running what ultimately needs to be a financially viable business."

Frauenheim insists, of course, that the schools in the Archdiocese are concerned with far more than the bottom line. They are safe, loving places for children to grow, a source of knowledge, the heart of a community.

"When we're looking for candidates to lead our schools we want them to understand that providing a Catholic education is not just a job, it's a mission," Frauenheim says. "We are forming and transforming young people in faith. That's a crucial role, and educators who come from St. Kate's know this in their hearts."

Educated to lead and influence
Liz Guernsey Ramsey '78 was raised Catholic but attended public schools. Most of her teachers were women, but the principals, she notes, were always men. "Then I came to St. Kate's. There, women were in charge. Women were the editors of the newspaper. They ran the Student Senate. And a woman was the college president."

Ramsey got the message loud and clear. "By the time I graduated, there was no question in my mind that I could lead, too," she says.

Today Ramsey is principal of Risen Christ School, a Catholic K–8 school located in Minneapolis's Powderhorn Park neighborhood. The faith-based education she received at St. Kate's helped solidify her desire to work in a Catholic school. Ramsey recognized what it means to be "fully educated."

A school united: Risen Christ School, a K–8 school in Minneapolis, where Helen Kluck Dahlman '75 (far right) serves as president and Liz Guernsey Ramsey '78 (left) as principal, was formed in 1993 when five small parish schools consolidated. For the first few years, Risen Christ operated out of two of the schools, but administrators eventually decided to renovate the larger building and bring all the pupils under one roof. "It united us," Ramsey says. "This way, the children feel like they're all in it together."

"It just opened my eyes," she recalls. "I'd go to Mass or I'd pray in the Chapel if I was troubled. It was the first time I got to integrate my faith into my learning experience, and that transformed my whole life. Once I got out of St. Kate's, I no longer wanted to work in the public system. I wanted to be at a Catholic school because I wanted to be able to keep that integration strong. And I wanted that educational option available for every child who desired it."

Many of the Archdiocesan schools were founded by the University's foremothers, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet. That alone may explain why so many Katies are drawn to work in these schools, says Jane Killian Schmidt '78, principal of Highland Catholic, a 420-student K–8 school located just blocks from St. Catherine's St. Paul campus.

"With the Sisters, women were always leading the way," says Schmidt, who got her first post-college job at St. Pascal Baylon School on St. Paul's east side. "Women were in charge at St. Kate's, so when I graduated it just seemed natural to me that I would someday become a principal — and there was never a doubt that I would work at a Catholic school."

Six years after graduation, Schmidt landed at Highland Catholic, a consolidated regional parish school that was formed in 1979. She was named principal in 1999, and she's been there ever since.

Schmidt loves showing visitors around her beloved school. "It's always been the perfect fit for me," she says. "I love it here." She halts the tour several times to talk with students, calling each by name. "We're a family here," she smiles as she breezes through the lunchroom. "And we're united in faith. That's part of the magic."

Katie power: Jane Killian Schmidt '78, principal of Highland Catholic School in St. Paul, loves working with Katies. Her busy 420-student school is staffed with many proud graduates of St. Catherine University, a fact Schmidt is fond of touting. "I think St. Kate's alumnae really get quality Catholic education," she says. "Put a bunch of us together on a project and that's when the magic happens."

left to right: A collection of Katie staffers at Highland Catholic, Jennifer Stephan Mlaskoch '96, Kathy Kline Diffatte '03, Jane Killian Schmidt '78, Linda Evans Mischke '81, Judy Erding Litecky '72, Mary Ryan Haffner '68 and Kitty Montgomery Dawson '72.

Crisis — or opportunity?
Helen Kluck Dahlman '75, president of Risen Christ School, believes that Catholic educators are called not to separate themselves from the challenges of the world but to dive in headfirst. Risen Christ serves a largely immigrant community. Most of the school's 342 students are Latino, more than half are English-language learners, and nearly all receive free and reduced lunch. All of the school's students — 82 percent of whom are Catholic — need financial assistance to pay the $2,100 annual tuition.

"Risen Christ exists for the same reason that Catholic schools were formed in this country: to serve those living in poverty, to serve those on the margins, to serve the immigrant," Dahlman says. "That's why we're here, and I think that's why we need more schools like ours."

Before taking her post at Risen Christ in 2000, Dahlman was principal at St. Peter's School in Delano, west of Minneapolis. She also worked at Benilde. "I love St. Peter's," she says. "I love Benilde-St. Margaret's. They are high-quality schools. Those kinds of schools exist for a reason. But the Catholic Church needs schools like Risen Christ."

Working at a school that serves an ethnically diverse and economically challenged population — and taking the time to get to know those students and their families — has helped her understand the inequities that exist in the American educational system. Dahlman cites Minnesota's achievement gap, the imbalance in test scores and graduation rates between the state's Caucasian children and children of color.

"Our faith compels us to act when we see things that are not just, when we see things that are not equitable," she says. "That's what Christ calls us to do. That's what I learned at St. Kate's. And that's what I hope we are doing at this school."

Studies have shown that Catholic schools have narrowed the achievement gap significantly, in some cases even erasing it, says Jim Field of the Minnesota Independent School Forum. Risen Christ, for example, graduated nearly 100 percent of its Latino students in 2010, compared with the Minneapolis Public Schools' graduation rate of 60 percent for Latinos.

"Small Catholic schools have much better graduation rates," Field says. "When small, urban Catholic schools close, kids of color have to transfer to public schools, and their chance of graduation lowers significantly. Large public schools just don't have the resources needed to help kids graduate. Kids get lost in the shuffle."

Demographics and decline
Whether serving a privileged or a poor population, Catholic schools have a strong community base and options for disciplinary policies that public schools do not, Field explains. He also believes that a faith-based education helps to instill a strong work ethic. "There's nothing wrong with the fear of God motivating you to do your homework," Field says with a laugh.

Time flies: Every spring, Molly McGrath Whinnery '74 is amazed when she surveys her eighth-grade graduating class. "With only a few exceptions, I've known every one of these kids since they were 5 years old,"she says. "Now they are 14 and headed off to high school. I marvel at how that happens, and every year I am so proud of all of them. They're wonderful kids. It's hard to say goodbye."

One challenge facing small inner-city Catholic schools in particular, however, is falling enrollments. At St. Mark's School in St. Paul, Principal Molly McGrath Whinnery '74, MAOL '89 and her staff educate 252 children in grades K–8. Another 65 attend the parish preschool. In the 1950s and '60s, the large brick building was home to as many as 1,500 students.

Though she doesn't long for the old days, when classrooms were crammed with 50 kids, Whinnery would happily welcome more children. Her 100-year-old school's neighborhood — an island of stately homes wedged between I-94, the Mississippi River and the ever-expanding University of St. Thomas — puts her at a disadvantage. St. Mark's families rave about the care and individual attention lavished on students, but Whinnery struggles to keep tuition reasonable — currently it's $4,150 a year for active parish members — and her school in the black.

"It's a real challenge because we have fewer students to draw from," she explains. "There are six excellent Catholic schools within a five-mile radius. In the '50s and '60s, all the big houses around here were filled with big families. That's different now. These days, we need to draw some of our students from across the bridge in Minneapolis. We're trying to get the word out to increase our enrollment."

The school is supported by the Church of St. Mark, but not all students' families are members. About 15 percent of the population is students of color, and one-fourth of students are non-Catholic. Whinnery, who realizes her school's viability may depend on such diversity, welcomes students from all religious backgrounds.

"They go to Mass when we go to Mass," she says. "They don't participate in the sacraments, but they go to religion class every day. We are happy to have them. All denominations are welcome. Their parents have the same goals as everyone here: to raise children of character and faith."

We gather together
Larger schools like St. Paul's Nativity of Our Lord face their own set of challenges. The weak economy has been tough on some families, says Principal Kate Wollan. Some parents have lost their jobs, and family members have had to step in with financial help to meet tuition. In other cases, the school has provided temporary financial assistance to help children continue their education.

That's the way it works at a Catholic school, says the Archdiocese's Frauenheim. People care for one another: "There is enormous generosity in this community in terms of grants and scholarships that benefit our schools." The Archdiocese recently established the Aim Higher Foundation to provide tuition assistance to families. Half a million dollars this year went to children in 85 elementary schools, she says.

The Nativity community is like a family to Wollan, and she is committed to keeping her family healthy and happy. The 26-year-veteran of the school, who routinely works 60 hours a week, recently led Nativity through a major expansion. The project took nine years.

"I love this place," Wollan says. "Nativity has been very, very good to me. How many people can say that about their job?"

Home to 759 children in grades K–8, Nativity is one of the largest Catholic schools in the state. The school is supported by a strong church community — 98 percent of the students come from families that are members of the parish — and there typically is a waitlist for incoming students.

This spring, Wollan received an important accolade for her work when the National Catholic Education Association gave her the National Distinguished Principal Award, an honor given annually to a Catholic principal who demonstrates inspirational leadership, dedication to academic excellence and a strong commitment to offering her or his communities quality, faith-based education. (Highland Catholic's Jane Schmidt received the award last year.) The award committee lauded Wollan as a model of the Catholic faith, and Superintendent Frauenheim praised Wollan's "intrinsic desire to share the good news of Jesus Christ with everyone she meets." St. Catherine President Andrea Lee, IHM, was present for the award ceremony.

All in the family: All in the family: Kate Wollan '86, principal of Nativity of our Lord Catholic School in St. Paul, comes from a long line of Katies, including her mother, Barbara Probst Wollan '58, and sisters Mary Wollan Quigley '81, Ann Wollan Kocon '82 and Susan Wollan Fan '84 (profiled on page 35). And her seven siblings went to preschool at the University's Early Childhood Center. "For me,"says Kate, "the campus was a second home."

Naturally modest, Wollan looks uncomfortable when asked about the honor: "It's very nice to get good feedback about your work," she says with a nod. She pauses. "I do a little bit better flying under the radar, but it is a wonderful affirmation of the strength of our community. I couldn't do it without them. They really deserve the credit in all of this."

Skinner at Benilde understands Wollan's outward focus. Although she personally has experienced the value of a strong community in times of tragedy and triumph, she also understands how important that asset is to her school's day-to-day function. As in all Catholic schools, building community is a central theme at Benilde, a pillar of the educational experience.

"For us, it is about creating a loving, supportive culture that asks students to live out the Gospel message about kindness and justice and mercy, to work together to make the world a better place," Skinner says.

Recognized by the state with a Minnesota Service-Learning School Award, Benilde requires students to take leadership roles in service work that meets real needs in the community. Then the service experience is integrated into students' academic studies.

"We immerse our students in real-world experiences to help them see things from multiple perspectives," Skinner explains. "The community surrounds them with love and support — and then we teach them to go out into the world and be servant-leaders."


Job Description of a Catholic School Principal: What characteristics must today's Catholic school principal possess? Dahlman, Ramsey, Schmidt, Whinnery and Wollan say that if they wrote their own job description, these are some of the skills they'd require:

  • Faith leadership
  • human resources management
  • financial wizardry
  • marketing
  • technology savvy
  • alumnae/i relations
  • internal and external communications
  • child development
  • conflict resolution
  • fundraising
  • media relations