By: Cori Petersen
Mattoon, Wisc. had a population of 467 in 2019. It is a very rural village and doesn’t have much: a grocery store, a gas station, a bar, a factory, and several churches. As of 2016 Mattoon hasn’t even had a school since the town of Antigo centralized the schooling and has been busing kids from the surrounding villages.
But thanks to the sale of the old Mattoon elementary school to a group called Shepherd’s Watch, a choice school is coming to Mattoon. “The community is excited,” said Wade Reimer of Shepherd’s Watch. “A lot of people don’t really know about what a choice school means. It’s a real low-income community, so it is a good fit for school choice.”
Not only will the school keep kids from having to take the bus 45 minutes each direction to attend Antigo schools, it’s going to meet tangible needs for the town of Mattoon. “We’re going to be a unique school. In our building now, a retired teacher is working with students who have trouble reading with the phonics program, a program she created through years of teaching,” Reimer said. “We have to go back to the basics. Keeping things simple and having enough teachers for the students we have, enough one-on-one time.”
The high-poverty, rural area really struggles with academics. For instance, in the Antigo school district two out of every three students are not proficient in English or Math—well below the state average. Reimer explained how Shepherd’s Watch “wants to be different” than what you see in the public school. “If students fall behind in the public school system they get categorized and it’s very hard to change that,” Reimer said. “There’s not a student out there who can’t be taught.”
Shepherd’s Watch has a “back-to-basics” vision for the upper grades as well. “For older ages, as we get there, we’d like to focus on some type of skills trade that they’d like to get in, not just college,” Reimer said. “We are surrounded in our area with a lot of different union trades that you can make a really good living at.”
Reimer discussed the tendency for drug abuse in their area. “There isn’t a small town that doesn’t struggle with it.” He hopes that the school will meet needs for kids and families before they turn to drugs. “So many times it’s because of a failed education system early on or family nurturing that was missed. By keeping our school small we are hoping to have the families involved.”
In a small town, the school building doubles as a sort of community center for families, which is what the building is currently being used for as they get the school off the ground. Currently the building is home to a library, a community workout room, a food pantry and a coffee shop.
Shepherd’s Watch is trying to get area churches on board with the vision of this Christian school and is hoping that it can bridge the divide between denominations. “We are going to be an Apostles-Creed-believing, non-denominational school,” Reimer said. “We are trying to bring unity between the churches—the Catholic church, the Lutheran church, the Nazarene church—just in our community center right now. And it’s working out well.” Some of churches have even talked about doing a vacation Bible school together with Shepherd’s Watch this summer.
Although many things seem to be falling in place for the school now, acquiring the building was a serious hurdle. In January of 2019, the Village of Mattoon and the Town of Hutchins filed a lawsuit against Antigo in the Shawano County Circuit Court to receive a declaration of ownership of the school. WILL intervened on behalf of Shepherd’s Watch in August 2019, making them a party to the case. However, the court ruled in favor of Antigo’s ownership claim in March 2021.
When Shepherd’s Watch was appealing their case, Antigo had a change of heart and decided to sell the vacant building to the Village of Mattoon who then sold it to Shepherd’s Watch. The Christian non-profit finally closed on the building July 29, 2021, but they got the building with a deed restriction: no compulsory education in the building for two years. “In the fall of 2023 we can have a school,” Reimer said.
As a choice school, initially there will be a cap on the number of kids who can come to their school out of the public school. But after two years those caps will be lifted. “The timing is just perfect,” Reimer said. “And we are between three different schools districts and two of the districts don’t have a choice school.”
“I can’t thank WILL enough for what they have done for us,” Reimer said. “I just smile when I think about them and the fight that they continue. They’re a resource.”
Petersen is a writer and research associate at the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty.