St. Paul’s Lutheran School — long legacy of Christian instruction

Photo by Clay Schuldt All the students and staff at St. Paul’s Lutheran take part in the first pledge of allegiance of the 2023-2024 school year.

NEW ULM — St. Paul’s Lutheran School has been part of the New Ulm community for 138 years and is in a great position to carry on through the future.

As the name of the school suggests, it is connected to the St. Paul’s congregation in New Ulm. The school and the church share a close history. It was shortly after the congregation was founded that its members began discussing starting a Christian school.

Many of the congregation felt the Christian education their children were receiving was inadequate. Former St. Paul’s Lutheran principal Dale Markgraf said part of the reason for the school was many were concerned about the influence of the Turner Society and wanted a school to teach God’s influence.

A school society was formed with the support of Rev. C.J. Albrecht. In 1885, they were permitted to open a Christian day school in the church’s old parsonage that was located at 2nd North and State. From the beginning, the church was designed for grades 1st through 8th grade.

About 45 kids were part of the first class with a single teacher. The school soon expanded to 75 children. The need for an assistant structure was apparent. The congregation sought help from Dr. Martin Luther College (DMLC). The college provided St. Paul’s Lutheran School with student teachers to assist on a regular basis. To this day, the school maintains a strong connection with Martin Luther College (MLC). The college continues to provide teachers to the school.

By the second year, the congregation supported the construction of a framed building to supply another school room, making St. Paul’s a two-room school. The upper grades remained at the passage the younger students moved to the new framed building and both teachers instructed all day.

The school continued to grow and the need for a larger building followed. In Nov. 1900, a two-story brick building was dedicated. This building had four classrooms and allowed the addition of a third teacher.

Over the next fifty years, the student body continued to grow, and by the late 1950s, it became clear a long-term plan was needed. In 1959, the Concordia Club sold the school a nearby building to use as an annex. This was a stop-gap measure to allow time for a long-term solution. The long-term solution would be the construction of a brand-new school facility on Payne Street.

St. Paul’s Lutheran School opened its doors at its current location in the fall of 1971. The previous year had seen the highest enrollment at 465 students. The opening of the new school on Payne Street was a relief to many. The school also saw an influx of new teachers.

One of the new teachers was Dale Markgraf, who taught 7th and 8th Grade. Markgraf’s son Peter was part of the first Kindergarten class at the Payne Street School. What know one could know at the time was that both Markgrafts would eventually serve in this position for 34 years.

Peter Markgraf became principal in 2018 and remains the principal to this day. He was previously serving as a principal in Sioux Falls then took a year off.

When he was ready to return to being a principal, there was an area he was comfortable in traveling and it turned out his former school needed a principal.

Dale Markgraf has long since retired as a teacher and principal, but still lives in New Ulm and is available to give his son advice.

“I try not to bother my dad too much,” he said “but it is good to talk to him. It is great to have that history.”

Both Markgraf said the greatest changes with the school over the years were advances in technology. Decades ago it was rare to have a computer in the school. Now most students learn with a Chromebook.

Peter Markgraf said St. Paul’s has tried to be at the forefront of technology. The school has invested in STEM programming and is paying close attention to innovations in artificial intelligence technology.

“As a community, we are trying to think of ways AI could benefit us,” Peter Markgraf said.

Dale Markgraf said from the beginning the focus of the school was to instruct students in “God’s divine will.” The message has not changed, but it has expanded to include a greater range of students.

For many years, all of the children of St. Paul’s congregation attended St. Paul’s Lutheran. In 1947, when St John’s congregation was organized, parents who were members of that church continued to send their kids to St. Paul’s school. St. John’s would even begin supplying teachers.

The majority of students attending the school are from the St. Paul’s or St. John’s congregation, but now there are students from other parts of the community who desire a Christian education. Following the closure of St. John’s Lutheran School in Sleepy Eye, many students came to St. Paul’s.

Peter Markgraf said this year 316 students are enrolled at St. Paul’s. This is a decrease from the peak enrollment of the early 1970s. Peter Markgraf said the average family size has decreased over the decades, lowering the number of students. However, enrollment has been on the rise for the last three years.

Peter Markgraf said he feels the school is in a strong position for the future. The school continues to have a strong connection with MLC. Many of the professors working at the college will likely enroll their children at St. Paul’s.

The school does carry out generational traditions, with parents and grandparents sending kids here. Peter Markgraf feels the school have very strong relationships with the parents of students and is one of the school’s best asset.

“The Bible teaches that children are to be instructed in the Lord, that is parents’ responsibility,” Peter Markgraf said “But the parents can be assisted. We help parents train students.”


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