Partnership with St. Coletta Helped Put Stritch on the Map

Monday, October 8, 2012 1:30:00 AM

By Sara Woelfel

The road between Milwaukee and Jefferson, Wis., is well worn. For decades, beginning in the 1940s, Stritch students traveled the 50 miles west to St. Coletta School (now St. Coletta of Wisconsin) to learn to teach people with developmental disabilities. As the world’s oldest, Catholic organization dedicated to supporting individuals with developmental and other disabilities, St. Coletta provided a unique opportunity for experienced classroom teachers to study special education methods, acquire hands-on experience and pursue their Stritch studies at a place recognized for its pioneering work.

Now in the midst of commemorating the centennial of St. Coletta of Wisconsin, the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi, who founded and continue to sponsor St. Coletta and Cardinal Stritch University, will culminate the organization’s yearlong celebration in September. And they have much to celebrate.

According to historical accounts, the founding of the then-named St. Coletta Institute for Backward Youth came at a time when people with disabilities were shielded from society and not expected to lead productive lives. Yet, the Sisters believed in the potential of these young people and nurtured them for decades, offering academic opportunities, vocational training, specialized curriculum, lessons in spirituality, and a place to thrive among some of the nation’s leading experts in the field of special education.

The school grew and the Sisters created two more St. Coletta locations, in Illinois (which originated in Colorado) and Massachusetts. The influence of St. Coletta of Wisconsin extended across international borders through the work of hundreds of Stritch graduates who had studied at St. Coletta.

“I do think that if it hadn’t been for St. Coletta we would not have a Cardinal Stritch University, because in the ‘50s and ‘60s, special education and reading put us on the national and international map,” said Sister Coletta Dunn, ’60, a Stritch professor of religious studies who studied, taught, did doctoral research, and served on the board at St. Coletta School.

“I think the relationship between Stritch and St. Coletta developed due to the Mother General saying, ‘These are both my children and we want them to grow together,’ ” Sister Coletta said. “And a lot of the mutual assistance – financial as well as personnel – was an interchange… . It was sister institution helping sister institution.”

For Stritch, the benefits of this relationship included having a natural lab site for developing special education materials, hands-on opportunities for training teachers, and access to the resources necessary for developing one of the nation’s first master’s degrees in special education – then called mental retardation – in 1957. For St. Coletta, the benefits included on-site staff training, opportunities to implement progressive special education methods and curricula, and the acquisition of an extensive professional library that included both textbooks and original research manuscripts from Stritch graduate students.

Stritch scheduled classes for its master’s program – and later for its associate and bachelor’s programs in special education and its pioneering master’s in special religious education – during memorable summer sessions from the 1950s through the ’80s, on both the St. Coletta and the Stritch campuses. Students came from school districts nationwide and later used their training around the world, including in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Canada, India, Africa, the Philippines, New Zealand, South America and the Caribbean.

“Today we talk about immersion experiences,” said Father Robert Kroll, OFM, ’73, ’87, remembering time studying at St. Coletta. “If you want to learn a foreign language, you go live in another country for three or six months. That’s what the experience was like. You were immersed in the lives of people who had challenges.

“And you lived with them, and you became aware very quickly that they did not view themselves as any different than you. They saw beyond their challenge. It was wonderful. It gave you a whole different perspective.”

Father Robert, who has worked in education since his ordination in 1971 and now works in the central office for the Diocese of Green Bay, earned a master of arts in special education from Stritch in 1973 and later returned for a master’s in education in 1987.

During her time on the Jefferson campus, Sister Coletta likewise felt immersed in the lives of the residents. And she learned unexpected life lessons from them.

“I was so touched with their child-like confidence in God. It helped me to examine my faith,” she said. “One young woman who was a student while I was teaching there suffered from kidney failure and spent her last days in a nursing home in Milwaukee. I visited her almost daily in the last days she spent on this earth. There she taught me how to live and die; she couldn't read very well but she had learned the songs we sang in church and we sang together as she waited for death.”

In tandem with the development of the master’s program, the Sisters from Stritch and St. Coletta created groundbreaking curriculum materials in 10 academic areas. Sister Coletta, along with former St. Coletta superintendent and Stritch professor Sister Sheila Haskett, ’55, and Stritch special education professor Sister Gabrielle Kowalski, ’64, ’69 – who also studied, taught and served on the board at St. Coletta – later wrote religious education curriculum specifically for people with special needs.

“There really wasn’t much available at that time in terms of curriculum, so St. Coletta and Stritch in the ’50s and ’60s did a lot of curriculum development in various academic areas for people with mental retardation,” Sister Gabrielle said. “Those curriculum guides were marketed nationally.”

The Sisters circulated more than 10,000 copies of the guides, which were purchased by educators in more than 40 states and several foreign countries, according to a Stritch alumni newsletter account. Stritch became so well known that many people who were interested in pursuing special education made it their top choice. Only four other schools in the nation were as widely recognized for their special education programs.

“In fact, one time, it may have been 1971 or ’72, the Kennedy Foundation decided to give no more scholarships to Stritch because almost every person who applied wanted to go to Stritch,” Sister Coletta said. (Rosemary Kennedy was cared for at St. Coletta for many years, until her recent death.)  “The foundation wanted to spread their scholarships around the country. Even people from our own religious community who applied for the Kennedy scholarship had to go elsewhere.”

Before 1965, nearly half of all teachers of special classes in elementary and secondary schools in Wisconsin had received training through the Stritch-St. Coletta partnership. At the height of the summer sessions, more than 100 students swelled the St. Coletta campus beyond capacity.

But much has changed since then, and the relationship has waned in recent years. These days, St. Coletta no longer operates a school, since people with special needs are now integrated in public schools. Instead, with its campus up for sale, St. Coletta continues to provide and expand its residential and vocational programs and services for adults in areas throughout southeastern Wisconsin, Madison and northern Illinois. As a result, Stritch taps in to local schools for training and practicum experiences.

“Of course, it’s still a possibility that students could do an internship there, but we haven’t had one for a couple of years, because, once the school program closed and St. Coletta made the transition to supporting adults, we didn’t have as many students interested in that,” Sister Gabrielle said.

Yet, even with few remaining ties, Stritch and St. Coletta remain connected through a legacy of teachers who studied in Jefferson and carried their lessons to all parts of the globe. Milwaukee Public Schools special education teacher Susan Feider Kelly, ’77, ’80, is a living example of that legacy. In addition to her work for MPS, she has served for 24 years as the volunteer coordinator of the Association for Religious Instruction, Special Education (ARISE), a nine-parish collaboration serving teens and adults. She credits Sister Sheila as her mentor.

“She influenced me because she and Sister Coletta wrote the religious education program called ‘Journey With Jesus,’” said Kelly, who also is an associate of the Sisters of St. Francis and follows the ways of the order even though she is not a vowed sister. “I took a class at Stritch one summer about special religious education curriculum and Sister Sheila taught it … . In the ARISE program today, we now use the same model that Sister Sheila used.”

Kelly said working with the residents of St. Coletta was her first opportunity to work directly with people with special needs, and the experience broadened her education. And now in her work and volunteer roles, she regularly draws on that experience, the influence of the Sisters and her education.

Kelly’s story is just one among hundreds from alumni who carry on the lessons taught by the Sisters of St. Francis. Andrea Speth, vice president for development for St. Coletta, said she receives calls almost weekly from graduates of the program who recall fond memories of their time there.

“It was a very good first experience for a young college student,” Kelly said. “It was a leading school for people with disabilities so the experience we got was exceptional. It certainly made a difference for me and broadened my skills before I became a classroom teacher.”