By Trish Linner
Mishawaka Catholic School was founded five years ago with the merger of three schools: St. Monica’s, St. Bavo’s and St. Joseph’s. The consolidated school recently celebrated its five-year anniversary as a unique Catholic community that is supported by all three parishes.
“These three parishes make us who we are,” said Principal Jennifer Schwab. Schwab, a teacher and former administrative support person, was named principal of Mishawaka Catholic Schools in April.
The idea of a merger began to form in 2009, due to concerns about the quality of education and low enrollments at the three schools located near downtown Mishawaka. Then-Superintendent of Catholic Education Mark Myers believed a combined middle school could attract students from outside the three parishes and offer a greater variety of classes.
A committee was formed in 2010 to explore the possibility. Serving on the committee were two representatives from each church, then-Marian High School Principal Carl Loesch, Superintendent Myers, St. Bavo Principal Linda Hixon, St. Monica Principal Sister Pat Gavin, St. Joseph pastor Father Terry Fisher and Father Anthony Szakaly, assistant provincial for the Indiana Province of Holy Cross.
The merger was eventually approved, and newly formed Mishawaka Catholic School was launched for the 2011-12 school year. Students were divided up by grades: the St. Bavo campus offers pre-kindergarten through second grade, the St. Joseph campus serves third-through fifth-graders and the St. Monica campus offers sixth through eighth grade.
This was a new challenge for many parents, who could have students located in all three buildings. Many were also attached to the history of their own school and had difficulty seeing the vision of a combined community.
“Some parents were understandably anxious: It was the children who led the way to the merger’s success,” said school board President Dave Heidt. “I think the most successful part of the merger has been the way the children of all three parishes have come together.”
Today there is a sense of one school with three parishes: The merger has created a thriving community and the school reflects the traditions of all three.
One of the most popular traditions that has been embraced is called Faith Families. “A Faith Family is made up of a student from each grade, with the eighth-grader as the leader. Each month the families get together for an all-school Mass and activities, and it rotates between the three campuses,” Heidt said. Through the Faith Family students bond with each other and have the opportunity to interact with one another, even if they are located at different campuses.
The students kicked off Mishawaka Catholic’s anniversary year with a party during Catholic Schools Week. They continued to mark the anniversary throughout the spring, and school leaders were able to reflect on the anniversary as the school year came to a close. “We’ve accomplished a lot over the past five years. Now we are ready to take on the next challenges,” said Executive Administrative Assistant Tammy Christianson.
The five-year anniversary mark means that the first graduating class of Mishawaka Catholic School has now also graduated high school.
“We want to remain a part of our graduates’ lives. We cannot forget who we serve, and we hope they will return and share their stories with our current students,” Schwab said. She is committed to a revitalization and to refocusing on academic success.
“We want to bring the best practices in education here. We want our students to be high achievers. In addition, we want to place a greater value on serving. We are called to a greater mission as a Catholic school. I am thrilled to be the principal of Mishawaka Catholic School as we mark our five-year anniversary and look towards the future.”
The anniversary also marks another change for the school: all three parishes will receive new pastors in June.
“We are very excited about our future,” said Christianson, “We are thrilled to have a new principal, three new pastors and a vision for the future of Mishawaka Catholic School.”
Schwab strives to make a difference at Mishawaka Catholic
For Jennifer Schwab, teaching is the family business. She is proud to be a fourth-generation member of that professional tradition. “My mom is a teacher. Two of my three siblings are teachers, and many of our extended family members are teachers,” she said.
Extensive education and experience in the classroom have also prepared Schwab for her new role as principal, and she is ready to make a difference for the students of Mishawaka Catholic School.
She knew from a young age that teaching was what she wanted to do. “I realized and accepted my vocation to be a teacher and school leader in fourth grade, at about the age of 10,” she remembered.
Born in southern Ohio, she attended Catholic grade school and graduated from St. Joseph Central Catholic in Ironton in 1996. She attended Ohio Dominican College, where she earned a bachelor of science in education and then a bachelor of arts in communication studies. She taught for six years with Columbus Public Schools.
Schwab then pursued a master of arts degree in educational policy and leadership through an accelerated program at The Ohio State University. She earned her degree and completed the necessary requirements for principal licensure. She continued her education and earned a second master of arts in organizational communication through Ohio University in 2011.
Schwab originally went to school to be a middle school history and social studies teacher, but found that her passion was teaching religion.
“Catholic catechesis, which I have taught and shared with fourth-graders, sixth-graders and eighth-graders, as well as juniors and seniors in high school through religious education classes and adults through RCIA, is by far my favorite subject. Nothing trumps faith formation. Apologetics is closest to my heart: After all, one cannot share, explain or defend one’s faith if one doesn’t know, grow, or practice and live one’s faith,” she said.
Schwab’s educational path and teaching experience was always with a goal in mind: that of becoming a principal.
“Almost every academic and professional decision I have made since 1996 has been in preparation for the moment when it was my turn to serve in a school leadership role. My dream job has been to be a Catholic school principal. The compelling desire to do this stems from a vocational calling. My wanting to be a school principal is because I want to help, serve and advocate for teachers. Most importantly, I feel called to do so.”
The opportunity to fulfill this dream came in December 2015, when she was named interim principal at Mishawaka Catholic. School board President David Heidt commented, “When Miss Schwab was named interim principal, it was because of her teaching experience and certification. It was agreed upon by Father Fisher and the board that this would be a trial period to show her leadership and vision for the school. She has met the challenge head-on.” She was formally offered the position in April.
Schwab is ready to start her first full year as principal. “I want to advocate for, protect and support the teaching and learning process as a process of mastery, application and growth. Additionally, I want to foster a positive, professional learning environment that encompasses and instills the values, standards and practices of our faith,” she shared.
“Lastly, I want to make a positive difference for the greater good through service in education — especially Catholic education. After all, education is our greatest asset. When coupled with our most valuable resource, children, within the realm of the most significant priorities of this life — the sharing of the Gospel and eternal salvation — this work becomes greater than self and influential beyond measure. What we do in schools matters, because it isn’t about the teacher or the principal; it’s about learning, forming, developing and growing the learner as a future servant of faith, steward and contributor to a world bigger than and beyond self.”
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