By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger
MUSCATINE — Ss. Mary and Mathias School will add sixth grade to its system for the 2016-2017 school year. Currently, the school hosts preschool through fifth grades.
Principal Ben Nietzel, who attended the elementary school as a child, believes the Holy Spirit was calling him to help grow the school. “When I got hired (in 2012), I felt strongly about expanding the school to middle school. I have three daughters and I desired the opportunity for them to have Catholic education longer than I was able to have it. As an educator, I feel like middle school years are those in which I would most want my kids to have a Catholic education. … It’s such a tough time with what kids are going through (at that age).”
He hoped to begin discussing the possibility of expansion with parents and the school board perhaps seven or eight years into his tenure, but things fell into place much quicker than he anticipated.
To start with, other parents at the school echoed his vision. Jon Eads, a father of six with three currently attending Ss. Mary and Mathias School, said, “My wife and I, along with other parents, have been encouraging. The questions were: Is it possible to add a middle school? What does it take? What type of support does it need from the parents and parish?”
Nietzel said adequate space is one of the biggest challenges facing schools that wish to expand. If an addition is built to house new grades and the grade expansion doesn’t work out, the school is stuck with the expenses involved with the physical structure. Ss. Mary and Mathias does not face that challenge because of space available in the attached Mazzuchelli Center. The parish funded that building five years ago to facilitate parish and school activities. During the school day, a number of classrooms are empty – enough for a sixth grade and for seventh and eighth grades in the future, depending on interest.
Additionally, Nietzel said the timing seemed right due to restructuring that seems likely to occur in the Muscatine public school system in the coming years. He said much support exists in the community for a proposal to restructure grades five through eight so that fifth- and sixth-graders go to one school and seventh- and eighth-graders go to another. Muscatine currently has two sixth- through eighth-grade middle schools. Nietzel said it made sense for Ss. Mary and Mathias School to expand to sixth grade so that the students wouldn’t have to go to three new schools in three years.
Nietzel spoke to the school board in March and April about the possibility of adding sixth grade. The board discussed curriculum and financial aspects of the proposal, including the financial commitment involved with hiring one sixth-grade teacher. In May, the school board approved the proposal.
The goal, Nietzel said, is to have 15 students for the first year, ideally 20. Based on interest, he believes enrollment shouldn’t be a problem.
Lee Morrison, diocesan superintendent of schools, said the expansion is great news for the school. “The willingness of families to commit to another year of Catholic education for their children is an indication of the trust they have placed in SS. Mary and Mathias school and the satisfaction they feel toward the quality of the program.”
Eads said he and other parents are excited that sixth grade will be offered at Ss. Mary and Mathias School the year after next. “A couple of parents said, ‘I wish this was coming a year earlier!’”
Parent Sara Storr said she is among them, as one of her children will start sixth grade at Muscatine public schools in the fall. “My husband, Tim, and I are thrilled with the addition of sixth grade at Ss. Mary and Mathias School. We have always felt privileged to have Catholic school in our community and parish. By adding sixth grade, it means one more year where a Catholic education can help mold our children into young adults. They will be more equipped spiritually, morally and academically for their future.”