Tammy Ormson gave much of herself to Catholic education, both as a student and as a teacher.  And yet so much was taken from her.

Ormson lost her alma mater, Mount Scenario College, when the Ladysmith, Wisconsin, school closed a few years back because of financial trouble.

She then lost the school at which she was a teacher and principal for 16 years, St. John the Baptist in Plum City, Wisconsin, when it was closed in 2006 by the diocese of La Crosse.

At the time, Ormson wasn’t the principal.  She had left St. John’s in 2003 to run her family’s grocery store in nearby Spring Valley.  Yet the shock at St. John’s closure could be felt all the way up County Highway CC.  “It was a surprise when I heard that it was closing,” Ormson told me.  “It was a good school.  It wasn’t in any kind of financial trouble.  I and many others couldn’t really understand what was going on.  And it hurt personally to see a place you gave so much of yourself to simply not exist anymore.”

Yet the closure of St. John’s opened a path for Ormson, one that brought her back south to Plum City to take charge of a new private academy in the old St. John’s school building.

Many St. John’s parents still wanted their children to attend a Catholic school, and they needed someone to help lead the effort to create one.  Ormson’s teaching experience and her background as a principal, Plum City native, and high-school coach made her the perfect candidate.

Former St. John’s parents and students approached Ormson about leading the new school, and her name gave the effort instant credibility.  The group investigated similar schools throughout the state to see how they were run.  Then they approached the Most Rev. Jerome Listecki, bishop of the diocese of La Crosse, to seek his blessing.

“We’re not a part of the diocese’s education system, but we wanted a school that teaches in the Catholic tradition, and we needed the bishop’s approval to be listed as such,” Ormson said.  “I had never dealt with him before, none of us had, and there could have been some bitter feelings about what happened to St. John’s.  But we had a good, open-minded discussion with him.  We were very well prepared and made a very good presentation about what we wanted to do with our new school, and he approved it.”

Ave Maria Academy opened in the fall of 2007.  It has a preschool of eight students known as the Little Lambs, and eight students are currently enrolled in grades K-4.  Children come from Plum City, but also from Durand and Spring Valley.  Orm­son is the only full-time teacher on staff, with a half-time preschool teacher.  The remaining staff, from the secretary to the custodian, are all parent volunteers.  “We couldn’t have Ave Maria Academy without the parents being involved with it,” Ormson said.  “That’s how much it means to them.  They want a traditional Catholic education for their students, and they’ll give of their time to make sure the school runs properly.”

Besides time, Ave Maria has received such necessary donations as educational supplies, books, computers, science equipment, desks, and other learning materials.  Parents help to shape the core curriculum of Ave Maria, which currently includes Spanish, sign language, and computer education.  Students participate in weekly Mass at St. John’s, and they visit the residents at the Plum City Care Center.  “It’s like a little family,” Ormson said.  “The other day all of us, parents and students, went to lunch together.  That family atmosphere is what we offer along with small class sizes, a Catholic-based education, and a chance for parents to have close involvement in their child’s education.”

The 45-year-old mother of two (who recently became a grandmother) finds what she does now is not much different from what she did at St. John’s.  “St. John’s was a small school as well, and we combined grades just like we do here,” Ormson said.  “The kids are not taught at the same time in the same subjects.  The classes aren’t as big, but we had a 25 percent growth rate from when we first started to now, and other interested families around are taking a look at us.  Perhaps one nice difference between Ave Maria and St. John’s is not having to do all the diocesan paperwork, which leaves more time for teaching.”

Ormson was flattered and grateful when she was approached to lead the effort to start Ave Maria Academy, but it was also a new way for her to get back to doing what she loves.  “That’s the way life is sometimes,” she said.  “Things change, and there are new paths for you to take, and some of them lead right back to where you started.”

That could be true for other Catholics or anyone wishing for a traditional way of life and a traditional education.  Perhaps such small schools as Ave Maria are the first steps on the path back.