As they look to the conclusion of their third school year, leadership and stakeholders of Seton Catholic Schools gathered at the top of the Northwestern Mutual Building in downtown Milwaukee for a “friend-raiser” — an opportunity, said Seton president Brian Couch, “to tell Seton’s story” to about 100 corporate and community leaders from both the Catholic and secular spheres.

Attendees of the gathering, hosted by Seton supporter and Northwestern Mutual CEO John Schlifske and his wife Kim, heard from two students, St. Rafael eighth-grader Lidia Mora-Gallegos and St. Catherine seventh-grader Tyrone Morris. They shared details of how they and fellow students have benefitted from the Seton model — a collaborative, streamlined approach focused on expanding struggling urban schools’ access to best practices, government resources and expert assistance.

Mora-Gallegos, for instance, discussed how she utilizes her daily WIN (“What I Need”) time, a daily 30-minute period set aside for remedial work or enrichment learning, depending on the students’ individual needs. While her classmates tailor their WIN time to their own educational needs, Mora-Gallegos uses hers to learn coding.

It’s true of every organization’s first years — and it’s likewise true for Seton — the beginning has been a period of tough challenges and profound learning moments. It’s been three years of teachers and principals stepping outside their comfort zones. It’s been three years of developing answers to problems that are ever-evolving and ever-deepening in their complexity.

But the proof, says Seton leadership, is in the pudding.

“Tyrone and Lidia are the proof that Seton is working,” said Seton CEO Joan Shafer. “And we’ve got lots of Tyrones and Lidias.”

Seton Catholic Schools was officially formed in the fall of 2015. Prior to its formation, the Archdiocese of Milwaukee called in the services of the Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE) at the University of Notre Dame to assess the state of archdiocesan schools in Milwaukee.

The ACE study found that Milwaukee’s urban Catholic schools were in significant need of improving academics and faith formation for students. A task force was assembled to determine next steps, and the recommendation of that task force was to develop a network of schools. The formation of this network would consolidate business operations across the member schools, allowing principals and teaching staff the freedom to focus on students and instruction.

Nine schools were brought in during the first school year, 2016-17. The next cohort added four more schools. Two schools have since left the network and St. Martin of Tours will close at the end of this school year after struggling with enrollment. The Seton network will have 10 schools and 2,550 students in the 2019-20 school year.

Couch and Shafer are both recent additions to Seton staff; Shafer was a member of the organization’s original board of directors and was named as CEO in January.

Couch spent six years in fundraising at the University of Notre Dame, and said he was attracted to the position by the prospect of tackling problems facing today’s disadvantaged student population.

More than 80 percent of Seton students participate in the Milwaukee Parental Choice program; 52 percent are Hispanic, 22 percent are African-American, and the remainder are white or another ethnicity.

Seton’s focus has been to accelerate academic growth for students who need to catch up to grade level. Based on a number of evaluations, the results look promising. Shafer and Couch say, according to the results of the Wisconsin Forward exam, student proficiency in math has increased by 40 percent since 2016, and more than 70 percent of graduates are going to high-performing high schools. They also pointed out all the schools in the network have received a “meets expectations rating” or higher on the Wisconsin State Report Card. Two Seton schools, St. Charles Borromeo and Mary Queen of Saints, ranked as the top Catholic schools in Milwaukee County when looking at report cards for Choice students only.

Additionally, said Shafer, consolidating business operations into one office that works across the entire network has resulted in more money and staff time being invested back into the classrooms.

“Our bet is that if we can get the principals working with the teachers and ensuring every classroom is effective, that’s how we can really change the outcome for students,” said Shafer.

To do that, Seton uses tools like the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test, which they administer three times each school year to determine the direction of each student’s WIN time. Students like Mora-Gallegos who show proficiency in her subjects can focus on enrichment learning; those whose scores show a need for improvement, said Shafer, have a clearer roadmap for growth.

“We can pinpoint exactly where the student needs additional support,” she said.

A major selling point of the Seton model is that smaller urban schools can benefit from the expanded resources that a network like Seton offers. Shafer says Seton has been able to access broader government resources — like the more than $460,000 in Department of Justice grants for school safety features. Seton is also developing community partnerships, knowing they can’t do this work alone. This fall, in collaboration with the Boys and Girls Club of Milwaukee, two new community learning centers will open at Seton schools, one at Prince of Peace and the other at Northwest Catholic School.

Of course, what both Shafer and Couch refer to as “one of the biggest changes in Catholic education this Archdiocese has experienced” has not occurred without a few bumps in the road.

“Principals who were used to being the general manager in their building are now being asked to play a role that focuses on academic performance, faith formation and community-building,” said Shafer. It was a shift not everyone was comfortable with, and she acknowledges “there were some early criticisms of Seton (saying that) we came in and focused very strongly on academics and business operations. We didn’t focus on listening and building relationships.”

This past school year, Seton has instituted advisory councils for pastors, principals, business managers and teachers to increase collaboration and transparency, and provide a clearer and more effective means of getting feedback to leadership. Similar advisory councils for parents or home and school associations also exist at each school.

Shafer says they have learned a lot from the feedback already gathered from the advisory councils. “If we expect our schools and children to be learning entities, we need to be that, too,” said Shafer.

In a letter addressed to Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki and Dr. Kathleen Cepelka, superintendent of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee schools, all Seton principals — Robb Beckmann, Sue Shawver, Amy Barbiaux, Janet Orlowski, Michelle Paris, Jennifer Jones, Frank Edgeworth and Michael Derrick — described “the collaboration inherent within Seton Catholic Schools” as “invaluable.”

“We truly believe the work we are doing together, with Seton Catholic Schools, will strengthen urban Catholic education in Milwaukee and set an example for how Catholic schools can collaborate across the United States,” they wrote.