By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger
MUSCATINE — More than a year ago, Muscatine Community School District announced that it would change from a middle school format to a seventh and eighth-grade junior high.
Not wanting Ss. Mary and Mathias Catholic School’s fifth-graders to have to attend three schools in four years, parents and educators voted to add sixth grade at the Muscatine school beginning with the 2016-2017 school year.
After finalizing arrangements, the Catholic school received some unexpected news: the public school system decided not to go through with its plans. This placed Ss. Mary and Mathias in an “awkward position,” Principal Ben Nietzel said. Essentially, it would put students in the same situation parents and educators hoped to avoid.
“The kids were going to be outsiders going into seventh grade. That wasn’t really appealing to our parents,” Nietzel said.
Instead of backing down from the plan for a sixth grade, Catholic school parents supported adding a seventh and eighth grade. After exploring options and taking care of logistics, the school decided to add the grades in a roll-out pattern, with seventh grade being added for the 2017-2018 school year and eighth grade starting in the 2018-2019 school year. Like the sixth grade, all middle school grades will use the Mazzuchelli Center, which is attached to the existing school.
In considering and planning the full middle school format, Nietzel and other educators reached out to St. Joseph Catholic School in DeWitt, which serves students up to eighth grade. As in Muscatine, most students in DeWitt opt to attend public school after finishing up at the Catholic school. St. Joseph is “a real life example of this working,” Nietzel said. “Their model was an inspiration to us.” He noted that St. Joseph Principal Sharon Roling was invaluably helpful and Lee Morrison, the diocese’s superintendent of schools, also was supportive.
Morrison said, “I am very pleased to see expanded Catholic education whenever the opportunity arises and I am very pleased to see it being offered through middle school at Ss. Mary and Mathias in Muscatine.”
One concern about the addition of the junior high grades was how students would be able to participate in extracurricular activities, particularly sports. While fine arts can be largely provided on campus, costs to fund sports teams and bus them to Catholic conference schools at least 45 miles away seemed daunting, Nietzel said. But, drawing on what he considers to be excellent collaboration, the public schools offered to let the Catholic school seventh and eighth-graders play on their sports teams. “These are kids who are going to play sports in the (public) high school, so it made sense,” Nietzel said.
Additionally, academically gifted eight-graders will be able to take the same high school math class that is currently offered to public school eighth-graders. Transportation won’t be an issue, as the high school is across the parking lot from the Catholic school.
Ss. Mary and Mathias Parish was also supportive of adding grades, Nietzel said. “They have a high degree of trust in the program. I appreciate that because they easily could have shut it down; just because the parents wanted it didn’t mean the parish would be okay with it. … I appreciate the support of Father Troy Richmond, Sister Cheryl Demmer, PBVM, and the whole parish.” He mentioned that the expansion didn’t require any additional money from the parish budget. The school has hired one teacher, and will add two more as the program rolls out.
The school hopes to have at least 15 students begin sixth grade in the fall and continue through eighth grade. Nietzel said the school is on track to exceed that goal, and at least three parents whose children did not attend the Catholic school for their elementary education have shown interest in sending their children to Ss. Mary and Mathias for middle school next year.
Students expressed gratefulness about continuing their education at Ss. Mary and Mathias. Fifth-grader Laura Eads said, “The teachers are always nice and helpful and the students are nice to each other.”
Fellow fifth-grader Reece Eberhard said he likes attending the school because “there’s more of a challenge here. “It’s more comfortable; I don’t have to try to fit in.”
Though the circumstances prompting the grade additions were not ideal, Nietzel is glad that the school will be able to offer a faith-based education to middle school students in Muscatine. “That’s why we’re doing this,” he said.