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Our Common Bond

Our Common Bond

On a cold, windy day in January 1983, former USM headmaster Robert D. Johnston sat down at his desk to pen his “Headmaster’s Corner” article for USM Today. At the time, USM was poised on the precipice of great change. Construction had begun to consolidate two campuses into one, thanks to the launch of a $13 million Our Future is Now capital campaign—the largest fundraising campaign ever undertaken by an independent school in Wisconsin at the time. The decision by the Board of Trustees to consolidate campuses, with support from the USM community, was perhaps obvious but not easy. The former Milwaukee Country Day School campus in Whitefish Bay held sentimental value for many people, as Johnston noted. Consolidation meant the merging of different student and faculty bodies, revamping administrative and support functions, and, for many alumni, saying goodbye to their campus and the memories it held.

A construction worker uses a lift to put the finishing touches on the Jack Olson '67 Commons.

Six Douglas Fir trusses span the width of the Jack Olson ’67 Commons, which will accommodate up to 250 people and be used for Upper School dining.

Beyond that, it required strategic foresight, significant investments of time and money, and, ultimately, a strong faith in the future of the school. The success of the campaign in 1983 set the stage for others to follow, including Phase I and Phase II of the Next Generation campaign, which concluded in 2010 and supported significant additions to the Upper School and Lower School, Middle School renovations, athletic facility enhancements, and the school’s endowment, among other projects.

“The planning process was very inclusive and involved many constituents—we didn’t want it to be a top-down approach.”

In May 2015, the school’s trustees were faced with yet another monumental decision: whether to approve the launch of a significant new campaign. Would the board empower school administrators to embark on an ambitious, five-year fundraising goal, one that included $27 million in funding, and would need the backing and support of the entire USM community? One that would further challenge faculty and administration to stay ahead of the curve—even set the curve—on a continually changing educational landscape? One that would formally challenge the school to prepare its students even more thoroughly for a world and a future that nobody can imagine? The trustees voted, unanimously, yes, and Our Common Bond was officially launched.

Our Common Bond represents the single largest comprehensive campaign, in terms of dollars, in the school’s history. Initially, school administrators were not sure how the community would respond. “It’s always challenging to know when to launch a campaign, and some people thought maybe we should wait a year or two,” said Head of School Laura Fuller. But the community response has been overwhelmingly positive, with fundraising goals at or even ahead of schedule. “The biggest, most pleasant surprise for me has been how people have stepped up so quickly and so generously,” said Fuller. “I think it’s fabulous.”

The Werner Family Art Gallery will showcase artwork from talented students in all divisions on a revolving basis.

The Werner Family Art Gallery will showcase artwork from talented students in all divisions on a revolving basis.

When Fuller joined USM as head of school in 2011, she knew first-hand the importance of fundraising. She helped to raise $23 million of a $35-million goal during her time as head of St. Catherine’s School in Richmond, Virginia. “It is truly one of the most satisfying parts of my job. To see how happy a donor is when he or she makes that decision to support USM, a school that they love, is absolutely joyful. We’ve had several donors who were not actively involved with USM as alumni give to this campaign because they are so passionate about the experience they had as students. That is incredibly rewarding.”

Doing Our Research

The May 2015 board vote to launch Our Common Bond was a pivotal moment in USM’s history, and it was not taken lightly by its members. It was preceded by years of research, interviews, and planning, starting with the launch of the school’s current strategic plan in the 2013–14 school year. The plan was not a traditional operational one, but rather an education-focused plan that would solidify USM as a thought leader and resource for primary and secondary education in southeastern Wisconsin and on a national level.

Through surveys, feedback-gathering sessions, and other work, faculty, staff, alumni, trustees, consultants, and others identified ways to refine, enhance, and document the vision and aspirations for USM. Even prior to the launch of the current strategic plan, it was clear to the trustees and the administration that the school needed to make enhancements to the physical plant and the academic programming in order to ensure the continuation of the excellent academic experience that it had been providing to students for generations.

“The strategic plan was critical because it ensured that there was a good alignment between the school’s physical needs and its approach to teaching,” said Dick Seesel, who served as the Board of Trustees president from 2013 to 2016. “It pushed the school to identify what it needed to do differently in terms of innovation and collaborative learning, to get students ready for the types of futures they will have in college and beyond.”

Virginia Henes Young Theatre

Virginia Henes Young Theatre

To start the process, the board worked with an outside consulting firm to conduct a feasibility study, in which more than 70 stakeholders were consulted to learn what areas of opportunity resonated most with the community. There were some things they already knew: there was not enough space in the Upper School’s Bradley Dining Room or the Virginia Henes Young Theatre; practice rooms for orchestra and band were far removed from the theatre; and larger, community-building events like athletic team dinners had to be held off campus due to space constraints. In addition, there was a clear need to grow the school’s endowment, which would help to maintain conservative tuition levels, provide resources for scholarships and financial aid, and support enhancements to faculty compensation.

But the strategic plan and feasibility study also helped the school to identify other areas of opportunity.
“This campaign has opened our eyes to what it means to be an innovative school,” said Patrick Tevlin, chief advancement officer. “We knew we needed to continue developing best practices for 21st-century teaching and learning, and also support our teachers as they foster innovation in all three divisions.” In addition, the USM Fund, the school’s annual giving program and most dependable, flexible, and impactful source of support, would be the third pillar of the campaign. “Based on our research and the conversations we had throughout the feasibility study, we were able to develop a working goal of $27 million: $15 million for capital projects, $6 million for endowment, and $6 million for support of annual programs through the USM Fund. It is a comprehensive campaign because it addresses all areas of support for the school,” said Tevlin.

A Community of Support

It has now been three years since the board voted to approve the campaign, and considerable progress has been made in that time thanks in large part to the leadership of the campaign cabinet. As of June 2018, funding for the campaign’s capital projects has reached 100 percent. Construction on the last of the new spaces will be completed by the first day of the new school year, and students are already reaping the benefits. The Lubar Center for Innovation and Exploration, which opened in August 2017, is a hive of activity at all hours of the day and night, with students in all divisions using the state-of-the-art equipment, tools, and resources.

The Virginia Henes Young Theatre, with 80 additional seats (and other improvements), now comfortably accommodates all students and faculty within a division for assemblies and other gatherings. “The assemblies are where students get to hear about each other’s successes, make announcements, talk about world news, and more,” said Charlie Housiaux ’02, Upper School dean of students and Upper School English teacher. “They help to set a positive, inclusive tone for the student body.” In addition, the expanded theatre adds more seating for public events like speakers, performances, and awards ceremonies.

Students and faculty collaborate in the Lubar Center for Innovation and Exploration.

Students and faculty collaborate in the Lubar Center for Innovation and Exploration.

The Bruce ’81 and Jennifer Lee Community Room—one of the first completed capital projects of the campaign—opened in September 2016 and has proven to be popular within the parent community. Located in the Lower School directly across from the Darrow Family Welcome Center, which also opened in September 2016, the flexible space is the perfect spot to enjoy a quick cup of coffee with other parents after drop off, or for an impromptu exchange with a teacher. It’s a welcoming room that fosters community-building for everyone, whether parent, visitor, student, alumni, faculty, or staff.

When students return to campus in fall, they will be greeted by many brand-new spaces in the Upper School, including the Jack Olson ’67 Commons and Palermo Hall servery, both of which will vastly improve the school’s ability to host large gatherings. In addition, the new Sardas-Trevorrow Band Room and new Stratton Family Orchestra Room will be located in close proximity to the expanded theatre, while the nearby Werner Family Art Gallery and Hammes Family Lobby provide a welcoming gathering space for students, parents, and all visitors.

Nearly 200 individuals have invested in the campaign thus far, largely because the campaign initiatives—the capital projects, the endowment, and the USM Fund—resonate strongly with the USM community and the end-users of the spaces. And that is no accident. Not only were donors consulted ahead of time as part of the feasibility study, but faculty and staff members were heavily involved in the planning of the spaces, from room dimensions and furniture layout to placement of power outlets, to ensure every detail was considered.

Parents and faculty gather in the Bruce ’81 and Jennifer Lee Community Room.

Parents and faculty gather in the Bruce ’81 and Jennifer Lee Community Room.

“It meant more meetings and added months of planning, but it paid big dividends,” said Assistant Head of School Gregg Bach. “A smaller group can go faster, but you might miss some things. How can you design a fine arts space without any input from the fine arts faculty? Where would the projector go? The white board? What are their acoustics needs?”

Initial planning had slated the band and orchestra spaces to be one room, but input from fine arts faculty led Bach and others to design it as two separate rooms. “It would’ve been easier to build it as one room, but they told us the teaching would be better if there were two spaces, so we found a way to make it work,” said Board of Trustees President Andrew Petzold. “The planning process was very inclusive and involved many constituents—we didn’t want it to be a top-down approach. It was student- and faculty-centric while also being tied to the strategic plan goals.”

Paying it Forward

While the campaign has been tremendously successful since its launch, it is not over. The school’s endowment and USM Fund, while perhaps less visible than a new space, are vitally important to the operation of the school. “Campaigns such as this one are what allow us to sustain our financial security,” said Head of School Laura Fuller. “USM is completely debt-free because we raise money in campaigns. Nothing is being ‘taxed’ in terms of tuition dollars, thanks to the many supporters who came before us. Having a strong endowment and USM Fund allows tuition to stay conservative when compared to the schools we benchmark with nationally. When schools have debt, that financing has to be accounted for in the operating budget, which could raise tuition or affect programming as a result,” said Fuller. “USM is a very lean and disciplined institution compared to our peers, and that is a significant difference.”

A student plays a game using virtual reality gear in the Lubar Center for Innovation and Exploration.

A student plays a game using virtual reality gear in the Lubar Center for Innovation and Exploration.

For Fuller, the Board of Trustees, and others, the future of the school is the vital reason why the Our Common Bond campaign was launched. It is why so many individuals have supported USM in the past, giving us a strong financial footing from which to launch confidently into the unknown. “If we are not in a campaign, or planning for one, our parents, prospective parents, and alumni should be asking us ‘why not.’ Because if a campaign is not part of our strategic planning, we’re not looking forward.”

When Johnston sat down at his desk on that winter day in 1983, he couldn’t possibly have imagined a USM where students fly drones and wear virtual reality goggles in the Lubar Center for Innovation and Exploration. Or a USM whose strong endowment meant that tuition growth was kept in check despite wild market fluctuations, ensuring that the school would thrive for generations to come. Nor can we imagine how our investments today will impact the school in 20, 10, or even five years. Despite these uncertainties, the words that Johnston wrote 35 years ago still hold true today: “Your school is a special place. It was developed by special people—people who not only prepared for the day at hand but also built for the future. We too must do what we can, as much as we can, as soon as we can. Tomorrow, after all, is the result of what we accomplish today.”

For more stories, photos, and videos related to the campaign, and a full list of campaign investors, visit

ICE Ball

USM’s ICE Ball was a spectacular celebration in support of the Our Common Bond campaign, and showcased the many ways in which USM students Innovate, Create, and Excel. Contributions from the more than 420 guests exceeded $400,000 and directly enhance the excellence of the USM educational experience. When added to the $1 million “virtual paddle raise” shared remotely by alumnus Dick Kramlich MCDS’53, proceeds from the event advanced the campaign total to 82 percent of the $27 million goal.

Tables, lights, candles, and flowers adorn the gym as it is transformed into a winter wonderland for the ICE Ball.


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