Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Educational Policy and Leadership
In 1926, the Archdiocese of Milwaukee opened its first Diocesan high school, hoping thereby to provide Milwaukee's north side with its own Catholic school. By 1984 the Archdiocese claimed that the combination of declining enrollment and rising operating costs left it no option other than permanently closing Messmer. In response, a small group of parents and community members aided by private philanthropy managed to reopen the school shortly thereafter as an independent Catholic school. This reemergence suggested a compelling portrait of the meaning given to a school, even as ethnic, religious, and racial boundaries shifted.
Modern studies tend to regard Catholic schools as academically outstanding and socially just institutions. In particular, Bryk, Holland and Lee's Catholic Schools and the Common Good celebrates community and a belief in the importance of a Catholic education. They present extensive statistical evidence demonstrating the overall effectiveness of these schools and identify the three most significant features of Catholic schools - the emphasis on a rigorous academic curriculum for all students, an environment filled with caring, committed school personnel and parental support, and a strong identification with principles of social justice. Seemingly consistent with this view over time were Messmer's college-preparatory curriculum despite limited budgets, religious and lay instructors who felt strongly about both Catholic education and Christian values, and an expressed commitment to social justice that shifted with Vatican II directives from global politics to local concerns, especially in relation to neighborhood integration and community diversity. While Bryk, Holland, and Lee's assertions may be correct, it is important to examine these beliefs, and Messmer provides ample opportunity to study the widely held assumptions about a Catholic school. Therefore, this dissertation examines a seventy-five year period at Messmer High School to explore the extent to which it was able to meet these modern ideals.