First- and second-grade teacher Rhonda Zimmerman is able to offer more individualized attention to students at East and West Catholic School in Bow Valley, thanks to the team-teaching approach used at the new school. LARAYNE TOPP


Merged Catholic school expands learning opportunities

At the rounding of a bend into the hamlet of Bow Valley, Nebraska, the spire of Ss. Peter and Paul Church rises to meet the sky. Nearby on a gentle slope, families gathered. After a picnic dinner, children amused themselves with games of tag as parents relaxed on lawn chairs and blankets spread out on the grass.

This wasn’t an ordinary day, but rather a once-in-a-lifetime occasion as two Catholic communities celebrated the creation of a new school.

Drawing from two parishes, with members from seven formerly individual faith communities, the pre-K-6 school opened its doors Aug 17, bringing together West Catholic in Fordyce and East Catholic in Bow Valley into the new East and West Catholic School in Bow Valley.

Principal Sonya Schroeder called it the “restarting of a culture.”

West Catholic was part of All Saints Parish, including churches at Constance, Fordyce and Menominee. A nine-mile drive away, East Catholic served students of Holy Family Parish, which includes churches in Bow Valley, St. Helena and Wynot, and the area formerly belonging to a parish in St. James.

The newly consolidated East and West Catholic School in Bow Valley displays a sign with its two sponsoring parishes and the communities from which many of their members come. LARAYNE TOPP

These parishes and their multiple worship sites, nestled near Nebraska’s northern border, are all served by Father Jim Keiter, pastor, and Father Andy Phan, associate pastor, along with St. Rose of Lima Parish and School in nearby Crofton.

In recent years, East Catholic and West Catholic schools had shared a number of resources, including a principal and music teacher. But low enrollments led parents and school administration to question the advisability of continuing to operate two schools.

Father Keiter had that question, too, and pursued it like no other.

“Academically, both schools were doing a great job,” he said, “and finances were the last of my worries.” The bigger concern was the social formation of the students.

Beginning in August of 2019, Father Keiter studied the issues and began a daily prayer regimen to discern whether consolidation, as he said, “was Father Jim’s idea or God’s will.”

“Lord, if you want the schools to come together,” his prayers began, “you’ll have to start it.”

In February 2020, parents from two families came to him asking if keeping two separate schools open was the best use of God’s resources. Within three weeks, parish councils, school boards and finance committees had voted unanimously to consolidate. Father Keiter led a town-hall meeting with parents to discuss the proposed merger, and more than 75 percent attended.

“I’m very pleased that the idea for this came from the parents,” said archdiocesan Superintendent of Catholic Schools Vickie Kauffold, giving an opportunity for students from the two schools to broaden their horizons.

East Catholic School board member Marie Haahr recalled debates about whether a merger would be the proper path. She is an alumna of West Catholic, and her husband, Jason, is an alumnus of East Catholic.

“Looking back, I wish we could have done it sooner,” she said.

Agreeing with that assessment were Raina and Justin Hoebelheinrich. Raina served on the West Catholic school board, and Justin on Father Keiter’s leadership team with members from All Saints, Holy Family and St. Rose of Lima parishes.

With three children enrolled at the new school, the Hoebelheinrichs saw positive results within a few weeks. The larger class sizes not only gave their children a chance for greater social interaction, but remained small enough to keep all students challenged.

“It’s the best of both worlds,” Raina said.

Seeing several church communities working together has been a good example for children to see, and the merger has been a boost for Catholic schools, she said. “I hate to see Catholic schools close” due to declining enrollment, she said. “It was the right move to come together.”

Because the school boards had decided to retain teachers from both schools, they have utilized BlendEd, a team-teaching model allowing teachers to excel within their skill levels while providing more individualized attention to students. Class groupings also were reduced from three grades in each classroom to two.

Rhonda Zimmerman, who teaches first and second grades at the new school, said teachers spent the summer rearranging classrooms for the larger number of students, determining division of duties for teachers, and smoothing the path to consolidation.

Students eagerly raise their hands as first- and second-grade teacher Rhonda Zimmerman quizzes them on the Ten Commandments Oct. 28 at the new East and West Catholic School in Bow Valley. LARAYNE TOPP

Supplies and equipment were brought over from West Catholic to incorporate into the new school. “The resources at West Catholic were a treasure chest,” Zimmerman said. The empty building has been transformed into the central offices for the three parishes.

Most importantly, teachers have been intentional about building unity among students who previously met only in kindergarten and at school concerts.

“Now it seems like the West Catholic students have always been here,” Zimmerman said.

Three Catholic families from Wynot heard of the merger and chose to enroll their children, bringing the number of students this fall to 69. A Catholic atmosphere was important to them, along with the opportunity for students to learn about their faith while receiving a quality education, Zimmerman said.

For the Hoebelheinrichs’ twin boys, fifth graders Jake and Ryan, the transition from West Catholic to the new school has been a positive experience.

Ryan said he appreciates having more kids to play with during recess, plus more classmates with whom to work on projects and to listen in when students are called upon to make class presentations.

Jake likes having all the teachers. “When we combined our schools,” he said, “we kept our teacher from last year and the teachers that were at East Catholic last year.”

Having those extra teachers in the classroom adds up to more time for the students, something the Hoebelheinrich family believes has paid off.

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