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Amid changes, families flee prominent Madison Catholic school

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Former families and a former teacher at one of Madison’s most prominent Catholic schools say its shift to a more traditionalist approach has resulted in the departure of most of its staff and a massive drop in enrollment for the coming school year.

Madison Diocese officials did not respond to repeated requests for comment from the Wisconsin State Journal about the changes at St. Maria Goretti, which enrolls students in prekindergarten through eighth grade at 5405 Flad Ave. on the city’s Southwest Side.

But in a letter sent to school families in October, Diocese Bishop Donald Hying acknowledged concerns about recently hired Principal Bob Schell and priest Father Scott Emerson and said changes at the school “reflect the desire of your leadership to strengthen the Catholic identity and formation of our students.” He rejected the notion that an increased emphasis on religion “will diminish the quality of academic excellence.”

Exact figures are hard to come by, but enrollment for the 2022-23 year is projected to be between 100 and 120, down from more than 400 during the 2020-21 year and about 330 at the beginning of 2021-22, according to parish or former parish members. Schell said enrollment last school year was about 300 but declined to speculate about what it would be next year, saying “much can happen during the summer months.”

The school had 40 staffers most recently, Schell said, and next year there were will be somewhere around 14, to align with reduced enrollment.

Former teacher Heather Kandiko, who taught Spanish at the school for 14 years, said teachers and other staff left throughout the last school year, including the mass resignation of the school’s lunch crew. She said she received a contract “non-renewal” notice just before spring break but then saw her job and others at the school posted on a teachers job site.

“There was nothing stated directly on the notice of why,” she said. “About 10-plus other teachers were given the same exact letter.”

Schell declined to discuss specific personnel matters.

Families who formerly had children at the school say changes have included a greater emphasis on the spiritual formation of boys specifically and a more traditional, less joyful approach to Mass.

“They just came in and bombed our school,” said Katy Sands. “It’s like a brand-new school.” She said she and her husband allowed their eighth-grader to finish out the year at St. Maria Goretti, but moved their sixth-grader prior to the start of the year and their fourth-grader in October. Both went to other Catholic schools.

Schell denied that boys are getting a disproportionate amount of attention or that Mass is significantly different. But as an example of the kinds of changes Hying referenced in his letter, Schell described a program last year called “Virtues in Practice,” which is a way “for children in grades prekindergarten through eight to grow closer to Jesus by imitating His life and virtues.”

“It is set up in such a way that a whole school studies the same virtue each month, to provide a whole-school (and at home, whole-family) focus,” he said. “The program covers 27 virtues over a three-year cycle, with 81 saints held up as models of the virtues,” and “staff were encouraged to integrate this learning into their regular classroom routines.”

Some school families and members of St. Maria Goretti church have complained in recent years about what they see as the advent of a more conservative form of Catholicism that started when longtime priest Father Mike Burke stepped down from full-time ministry in 2017 and was replaced in 2019 by Emerson, who got rid of some contemporary music and emphasized the use of altar boys.

Jamie Wenger said he and his family “enjoyed many really wonderful years at the school and at the parish” but became less active as they saw the “conservative direction that the parish was going in.”

The changes were accompanied by a 200-person drop in parish membership to about 6,700 as of August, and are just the latest sign of the tension generally in Dane County’s Catholic community, where more liberal-leaning rank-and-file Catholics have often been at odds with a more conservative Diocese of Madison leadership, most notably former Bishop Robert Morlino, who died in 2018.

Dispute over masks

Before he was hired by Emerson, Schell served as principal of Elm Lawn Elementary School in the Middleton-Cross Plains School District, but had also been a longtime member of St. Mary of Pine Bluff in rural Cross Plains, including serving for a time as chair of the church’s pastoral council.

St. Mary’s priest, the Rev. Richard Heilman, has made regular appearances on a right-wing podcast in which the host and his guests often criticized or spread misinformation about government attempts to control the COVID-19 pandemic.

Schell in August said he wasn’t aware of Heilman’s views on the pandemic response, but said, “whatever Father Heilman’s views are, that does not affect me as a principal.”

Schell also drew criticism on Aug. 13 for announcing that masks would be optional last year at the school. He also shared with some parents a nine-page list of links to studies or articles purportedly questioning the effectiveness of masks and pointing to their alleged negative health effects.

The school later reversed course on the mask requirement, in line with Dane County’s mandate at the time.

In his Oct. 7 letter, Hying writes that he had “heard various rumors, gossip, lies and calumny concerning Mr. Schell,” but when pressed, the people alleging such things couldn’t come up with the necessary details to justify launching a review of Schell’s work.

“What I do hear from some quarters is disregard and resistance to the increased Catholic practice within the school,” he wrote. “’We don’t need all that Jesus stuff’ is an actual quote from a school parent.”

He claimed the absence of most school parents from weekly Mass and other participation in the church “suggests to me that many do not want an actual Catholic school, but simply a private Madison school which is academically excellent.”

“It seems that if you aren’t the right kind of Catholic, you aren’t good enough for SMG anymore,” Kandiko said.

"They just came in and bombed our school. It's like a brand-new school."

Katy Sands, two of whose children enrolled in different Catholic schools


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