SSND education is transforming lives in Milwaukee
School Sisters of Notre Dame (SSND) have responded to urgent needs in their communities for nearly 190 years. As time passes and sisters transition to new roles, the role of lay people continues to grow. This has allowed SSND to partner with a variety of organizations and institutions that embrace the mission and heritage of SSND. These relationships continue to nourish and sustain the SSND charism into the future, finding new ways to share the SSND gifts.
Notre Dame School of Milwaukee began as a middle school in 1996 after the School Sisters of Notre Dame recognized the need to offer a quality Catholic education to young girls in the impoverished areas of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Since that time, the institution has continued to evolve to address unmet needs. Today, the school has grown to include an early childhood program, co-ed elementary school and all-boys middle school, serving 600 students in grades K-8 on multiple campuses.
What sets Notre Dame School of Milwaukee apart from other schools are the innovative solutions teachers and leadership have developed to meet student needs.
“We are 98% Hispanic in terms of school population, and 95% of our families fall below the poverty line,” said school president Patrick Landry. “Despite our demographic challenges, 99% of our kids are graduating from high school in a city where the high school graduation rate is 63%.”
Some of the school’s most impactful offerings happen outside traditional classroom time in after-school programs, summer school and camp, and even a graduate support program that continues to assist students throughout their high school years.
In addition to financial hardships, many of the students at Notre Dame School of Milwaukee do not speak English as a first language.
“We’ve been having a lot of recent immigrants from Central and South America,” Landry noted. “They don’t speak English at all, but we have an innovative dual-language program where students are learning English and Spanish. That has really helped them feel at home.”
Woven into the fabric of the entire Notre Dame School of Milwaukee experience is the charism and values of the School Sisters of Notre Dame. While laity has since taken over the day-to-day operations of the school, there remains a strong SSND presence throughout the institution’s culture and campuses. For starters, Sister Marianne Kempa serves full-time in campus ministry.
“Shortly after I started at the school, one of the little kids said ‘Oh, you’re a School Sister of Notre Dame!’” Sister Marianne recalled with a smile. “I was wearing my [SSND] pin, so they made that connection.”
In addition, many School Sisters of Notre Dame who live nearby are often present at fundraisers, graduation and other school events. There are also annual student awards named in honor of SSND foundress Blessed Theresa of Jesus Gerhardinger, and Mother Caroline Friess, who was instrumental in the congregation’s expansion in North America. When students had to stay home during the coronavirus pandemic, still the school found ways to keep SSND at the center of its education.
“During the coronavirus, while students were learning from home, the school still wanted the sisters to be very present,” said Sister Marianne. “So, I helped orchestrate ‘faith-filled Fridays’ and asked a different sister to write a prayer every Friday. It was another way in which the School Sisters of Notre Dame could stay in touch with our school population.”
During the school’s 26 years of existence, more than 700 students have graduated from its halls. Each child is nurtured in a quality Catholic education steeped in the gifts and charism of the School Sisters of Notre Dame.
“What matters is that there are people – faculty, staff, volunteers, committees – that are willing to invest their time and energy for [the SSND] tenets,” said Sister Marianne. “They value the SSND education so much that they are willing to make it a priority. I think the [SSND] legacy, history and spirit continues to live on through all of the people that we work with and serve through the school.”
-This article was originally published in the 2022 Trust & Dare magazine.