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The little school that could PDF Print E-mail
Written by JOHN MORTON   
Wednesday, 13 September 2017 18:37

Founded 27 years ago with 13 students and a shoestring budget, Ozaukee Christian in Saukville has survived and thrived due in large part to its tireless administrator

Ask Kris Austin what title she holds at Ozaukee Christian School, and she’ll likely say things like Coordinator of Cafeteria Cleanup or Superintendent of Snow Shoveling long before she tells you she’s the school’s administrator.
“If it needs to be done, it needs to be done,” said Austin, who leads the 3-year-old kindergarten through eighth-grade school, now about 60 students strong, into its 28th year of existence. “All of us here have to have that mindset, both the staff and the students.”
It has been quite a journey for the mother of three, who said she’d “pinch hit” for a year as the school’s leader during its early days.
KID LG“My goal was always to be a teacher and a mommy, never a principal,” she said. “Next thing I knew I was at Concordia (University Wisconsin in Mequon) getting my master’s and certification in educational leadership. Turns out I love being a principal.”
And she has enjoyed wearing a bunch of other hats, too.
“I’ve done literally everything there,” Austin said of the school, which since 2000 has been located at 341 S. Dries St. in the village of Saukville, where it rents space from St. John XXIII Parish. “I’ve taught art, physical education, even Spanish. I was learning things I never thought I would.”
She had taught at a Christian school in the Twin Cities that had an enrollment of 250 students and was comprised of three campuses. When she and her husband Roger moved to Port Washington in 1990 with a 3-year-old son in tow, Portview Church became their place of worship, and they were excited to learn it was considering starting a private school. Austin was happy to chair the committee.
“But the church decided it couldn’t do it — that it wasn’t large enough to do it well and worried that there wouldn’t be enough support,” she said.
So, the Austins and two other parents formed a four-member board and contacted the Association of Christian Schools International to help get organized in a pursuit to start their own non-denominational, independent school at Portview.
“We opened in August of 1990 with 13 kids and two full-time teachers,” Austin said. “And we ran out of money by October.”
Going strong 28 years later seemed unlikely when you consider the school was on life support after about 28 days, but donations from churches kept it alive.
So did some faith.
“The school did have its ups and downs. She could have called it quits, but she really believes in her calling,” said Adam Kasinskas, who grew up on Austin’s Port Washington street and was a member of the school’s first kindergarten class. “She’s definitely been the glue that keeps it together.”
Added Austin, “This was so close to my heart. We had to keep going. It was all about the kids.”
Progress did come quickly, as the school doubled in size in year two and again the next year. It moved to Port Washington’s Friedens Evangelical Church to take advantage of more space, spending three years there, and then returned to Portview for another five years when the church added an educational wing that included classrooms.
“But we always longed for more of a school environment,” Austin said.
Enter the space in Saukville, which was home to Immaculate Conception Catholic School before it closed its doors. It had been defunct for a year-and-a-half when Austin’s group arrived in 2000.
“It has been a great home for us and has allowed for stability,” Austin said of the past 17 years.
Now the school has five full-time teachers and four part-timers. This year, its preschool moved from Friedens into the Saukville locale, and it boasts a full-time director.
“Our preschool costs some families only $20 per week,” Austin said. “The phone keeps ringing.”
Beyond Ozaukee County, the school draws families from all over the region, including Menomonee Falls, Germantown and West Bend, Austin said.
“Our farthest is a family in Sheboygan County that still has kids here,” she said. “We have a strong reach.”
This, despite not having a specific denomination to hang its hat on.
“We have 30 denominations represented among the student body, and that’s one of the things of which I’m most proud,” Austin said. “We may have some differences doctrinally, but what is our common ground? It’s our belief. And that works in every way, even when there are differences on the playground.”
Striking a balance between religion and learning is always a challenge, but Austin said it’s seamless at Ozaukee Christian.
“We start every morning with Bible class, and that sets the tone for the day,” she said. “We then move to regular classes on regular subjects, but those principles are reinforced throughout the entire day. And it’s very natural for us. It’s not isolated.”
Austin, who sent three sons through the Ozaukee Christian system, marvels in the fact that nearly 30 years later she’s seeing some familiar faces.
 “We’re beginning to see a second generation come through,” she said.
That includes Kasinskas’s 6-year-old daughter Stella, who’s a first-grader. It’s her second year at the school.”
“We’ve seen great growth in her after the first year. The individual attention the kids get makes such a difference,” Kasinskas said of his daughter, who first went to a preschool closer to their Germantown home. “I remember how I used to find the rules there somewhat frustrating. I didn’t understand the importance of them until later in life.
“When we started to look for schools for Stella, I thought about that, and as it turns out she really likes them. She was really excited to go back to school this year.”
He credits Austin for creating that culture.
“We’re not asking the school to raise our daughter,” Kasinskas said, “but we want some of the lessons learned at school to be the same as what we teach at home. Kris cares about the children’s lives beyond the school. She’s got that compassion.”
Kasinskas’s wife Amanda taught part time at the school for several years — “This has come full circle for us in many ways,” he said — and some of its graduates are also beginning to return to help out.
“After spending a year in China, we have a graduate named Michelle Fromm who has come back as an assistant, so that’s exciting,” Austin said.
Fundraising efforts for the school also remain strong. Its 12th annual Dutch apple pie sale will take place at the school on Oct. 24, and the school-run Hidden Treasure resale thrift store, located at 139 W. Grand Ave. in downtown Port Washington, has established itself as a business mainstay.
“If someone is downsizing or if a rummage sale didn’t get rid of everything, we’ll come pick the items up from you,” Austin said. “Everyone chips in with the store. And I’ve never seen the shelves bare.
“Again, we’re truly blessed.”

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Last Updated on Wednesday, 13 September 2017 18:39
 
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