By Michelle Pape
Just a few blocks south of Bluemound Road on 76th Street stands Pius XI Catholic High School, the Milwaukee area’s largest and most diverse co-ed private high school.
With a student community that hails from 65 different zip codes and more than 105 area middle and elementary schools, the halls of Pius XI are filled with students of varying racial, ethnic, socioeconomic, and faith backgrounds. Established in 1929, Pius XI has graduated more than 29,000 alumni in its nearly 95 years, including this year’s Valedictorian, Wauwatosa resident Andrew Morton, who is heading to Gonzaga University this fall.
The school is poised to begin the 2023-2024 academic year building on the successes and traditions of the past, while implementing innovative and bold programs to advance student progress.
Diverse course offerings
While demographic diversity is apparent, it’s the diverse range of interests and aspirations within the student body that makes Pius XI truly unique. The expansive curriculum offers a range of electives, from engineering and architecture to four-year scoped and sequenced dance, drama, vocal, and instrumental courses. These courses allow for exploration alongside fundamental coursework.
Former Wauwatosa East Theatre Director Kate Sarner has been hired as Artistic Director to lead Pius XI’s drama department. Sarner was on-staff at East from 2011 to 2019, directing such productions as “Pippin,” “Anything Goes,” and “Peter Pan.”
Long-known for the strength of its visual arts program, Pius XI students recently earned 85 awards in the 2023 Scholastic Art & Writing Competition, the most of any school in Wisconsin.
In the past decade, Pius XI added a dance department, providing five levels of dance instruction for students of all abilities, including those who have never tried the discipline, as well as seasoned dancers. Pius XI is one of two high schools in the area to provide a fully-scoped dance curriculum.
Pius XI’s Engineering Program is also establishing a reputation for success, with two national championships in Rube Goldberg Machine Design, one in 2016 and the other in 2022.
Faculty at Pius XI are teaching students to discover, distill, and discern in a range of disciplines, not just a singular path. Athletes are encouraged to be artists. Singers are encouraged to pursue STEM-related courses. Students credit the opportunity to take such diverse courses with broadening their perspectives and problem-solving skills.
“In my experience, taking engineering and art simultaneously helped me develop as a creative problem solver. Engineering helps my art have structure, art helps my engineering have creativity,” said Class of 2023 alum Samantha Christian. “Engineering principles and art principles go hand-in-hand. Art taught me to think of impossible solutions and engineering taught me how to make them possible.”
Math Pilot fosters STEM focus
In 2021, Pius XI launched its Math Pilot Project, an initiative aimed at improving mid-level and advanced math outcomes. Using intervention and support resources, the program’s goal is to help lift math proficiency results.
The program is timely considering average math scores fell by nine points between 2020 and 2023 among 13-year-olds on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as the “Nation’s Report Card.” The goal at Pius XI is to not only bolster the skills needed for STEM-related careers, but also to foster interest in these options.
“Our Math Pilot Project is about supporting those students who might normally say ‘I’m not a math person’ so they can get excited about the possibilities math offers,” shared Pius XI Principal Ryan Krienke. “It’s laying the foundation and instilling confidence so they don’t just write it off.”
The three-year pilot, funded by the generosity of anonymous benefactors, has enabled Pius XI to outfit all math classrooms with furniture that promotes collaboration, as well as Promethean Panels—an interactive technology that has been shown to increase engagement. Monthly professional development sessions for the entire math faculty are at the center of the project.
“Once a month, the department spends a full day together examining assessment outcomes and developing data-driven strategies to further improve instruction,” said Krienke.
The school also has a full-time math interventionist, who focuses on providing additional support to small groups of students outside of instruction time and hopes to hire a second in the near future.
Phone free environment
While technology like Chromebooks and Promethean Panels play a big role in the classrooms at Pius XI, students will see a big change this fall when it comes to devices like cell phones and smart watches. The school is implementing a “phone free environment” with the help of a product called Yondr.
The Yondr Pouch is a bag that stores an individual’s mobile device and is secured with a special magnetic locking device. The product has been used at concerts and comedy shows and is now in use at more than 2,000 schools throughout the U.S.
Students will secure their phones with staff assistance as they enter the building, keeping the pouch in their possession until they unlock it before exiting at the end of the day. Accommodations will be made for students who require their cell phone to manage a medically diagnosed physical condition, such as type-1 diabetes.
Studies show that reducing or eliminating phone use in school settings can have a positive impact on academic achievement and classroom engagement and increase connections with peers and staff. A phone-free school environment can also reduce negative impacts of social media on student’s mental health, and increase safety during true emergencies by limiting the spread of misinformation.
An August 20, 2023, NBC Nightly News segment featured students, administrators and teachers from Alabama’s Montgomery Public Schools sharing their experiences after just one week of using the Yondr product. While nearly all students agree that they don’t like the change, they commented on how they communicate more with each other now that their phones are locked away and how the change has forced them to pay better attention.
Carver Senior High School Principal Gary Hall remarked that he’s seen “more engagement, more talking,” with teachers adding that it’s “revolutionized teaching for me this year” and “work gets done faster, we move along faster.”
“Phones have become a big distraction in the learning environment,” shared Pius XI Dean of Students Jake Nowak. “We’re looking forward to giving our teachers the freedom to teach without monitoring cell phone use and to the increased student engagement we’ve seen play out in other schools and districts that have implemented Yondr.”