DOUSMAN, WI – On a cold afternoon in February, Annalise Cartwright had a parent-teacher conference unlike any other before. She sat in the brightly colored miniature chairs, customary for her 4-year-old Kindergarten classroom, with her mom, Melissa; dad, Allen; teacher, Juanita Gutbrod; and principal, Ben Holzem. They tried to break the news gently.
A fire earlier in the day had destroyed their home and everything in it, even her Barbie house, Annalise’s favorite among toys.
As tragic as the day was, it also gave the Cartwrights a deeper understanding and appreciation for what St. Bruno’s Catholic School had become to them – family. While every school in the state quickly makes that claim, “We’re like family,” St. Bruno’s showed it, says Melissa. It was one of the biggest lessons the family has learned as new participants in the Wisconsin Parental School Choice Program.
The fire started in the garage, where a battery charger was connected to the engine block of a truck. Allen found the truck in flames and quickly called the emergency dispatch, and then his wife, Melissa, who often volunteers at the school. She called the school to explain why she would not be volunteering that day.
“Within 10 minutes, Mr. Holzem and Mrs. Gutbrod were at our house, giving us reassuring hugs, asking our clothing sizes, finding out what we planned to do,” recalls Melissa. “It wasn’t just Juanita and Ben who were with us. It was every single one of the teachers. When they got back to school, everyone on the staff took their own money out of their pockets, and one of the teachers went out on her break to buy us some clothes and household items. It was truly amazing. It is why we now are able to hold our heads up so high, because of the support from St. Bruno’s.”
After explaining the fire to Annalise with help from the staff, the Cartwrights left the school with new and donated clothes and household items quickly brought over that day by dozens of church and school families who had learned about the tragedy from a school email.
“It has been a journey,” says Melissa, who is also “very pregnant” with the couple’s second child. “St. Bruno’s definitely is involved in the community in the way that they reach out to families. We’ve seen it just in our own struggle. The school is phenomenal.” As newcomers to the school, the Cartwrights marvel at how they are not just “the other parents” at the school. “We are family,” says Melissa emphatically.
Even before the fire, the Cartwrights knew they had made the right decision in applying for the statewide School Choice program. Annalise was attending another preschool the previous year, when the staff changed. That prompted the family to search for a new school that would serve her through her elementary years. They tried St. Bruno’s 3-year-old program for the spring semester, and then formally applied for Choice.
“If it weren’t for School Choice, we would struggle with our daughter’s education, and we certainly could not attend St. Bruno’s,” Melissa says, explaining that her husband has a “hobby business” since Cerebral Palsy makes it difficult for him to have permanent employment. Melissa is working part-time at home doing clerical work. Once the baby is born, she plans to return to full-time work. But their income would prohibit their ability to send Annalise to a private school without the voucher program.
And, she has come so far.
When Annalise first started in Juanita Gutbrod’s classroom, she didn’t talk much at all. Both her mom and teacher agree she was extremely shy. “She’s made so much improvement,” remarks Melissa. “She has conversations with her classmates. She talks with adults. She even raises her hand to ask or answer questions in the classroom.”
Melissa attributes her daughter’s progress to the unique inquiry-based learning system that Mrs. Gutbrod uses with her early kindergarteners. One step into the classroom, and this “system” is evident. Someone wanted to learn about farms, and within weeks, parents and teacher joined efforts to build a mini barn in the classroom, complete with nesting boxes for stuffed chickens that lay eggs.
“Last year, one of the kids wanted to learn about camping,” says Melissa. “One day, we were out at the school with tents, a campfire. A couple of the fathers brought in a horse trough that they filled with fish, and the kids actually fished with worms and fishing poles. There were crafts, like making birdfeeders with peanut butter and birdseed. Someone brought a kayak. It was just great.”
The experience actually has catapulted the class to grow the idea of the “Outdoor Classroom,” which the parents, students and teachers are in the process of creating. The idea is to have a building on school property where small groups can gather and equipment that aids science and outdoor exploration can be stored. It will be part of the school’s STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) curriculum, as well as a place where life skills are woven into learning.
The synergy among students, parents and teachers that stirs up excitement about learning appeals to Principal Holzem, who is in his first year of administration at the school, bringing St. Bruno’s into the first year in the School Choice program. That kind of camaraderie around education indeed makes the school feel like family. There is a more unique reason as well – Holzem’s great uncle was St. Bruno’s parish priest in the 1950s at the time the parish was building the school.
Dousman, predominantly a farming community, has a growing Hispanic population, and St. Bruno’s is now an option for many of the new families settling in the area. Five of the sixteen students enrolled through the school choice program this year have enrolled in the school through their attendance at the church’s Hispanic Masses, says Holzem.
“Latino families are coming here from countries where Catholic schooling is the domain of very wealthy people. But through choice, they can have that share in the American dream and get the very best opportunities for their kids,” he says.
As they settle into the St. Bruno school community, newcomers will find a very warm embrace into the family. Of that, Melissa Cartwright says she has no doubt. Her family has definitely received that welcome.