ST. FRANCIS — One hundred percent of the students attending Prince of Peace School in Milwaukee are low-income, and 94 percent of them are Hispanic.

These demographics are familiar to Judy Birlem, principal at Prince of Peace for the past eight years, formerly principal at St. Leo School on the north side for five.

Familiar, too, are the needs at her school – like space – which is why she’s excited and apprehensive about the Milwaukee Archdiocese’s partnership with the University of Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE) for “Catholic Schools for Milwaukee: Light for the Future,” an initiative whose goal is to reinforce the effectiveness of the 26 Milwaukee, urban Catholic elementary schools.

“I’ve been now at Prince of Peace for eight years and recognize that there’s a whole different demographic and different needs in the Hispanic culture,” Birlem told your Catholic Herald after the informational meeting for principals and pastors on Tuesday, Jan. 29, at the Cousins Center, officially launching the initiative. “So, excited, because we can all get better; apprehensive, because we’re not all the same.”

More than 60 principals, pastors, parish council and school board chairs and local partners attended the meeting with Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki, Kathleen Cepelka, superintendent of Catholic schools, and members of the ACE Consulting team, including Steven Virgadamo, associate director of ACE Consulting serving as a project consultant, Stephen Perla, senior director of ACE Consulting serving as project co-leader, and Sister of St. Joseph Kathleen Carr, serving as project co-leader.

The partnership formed when Perla contacted Cepelka last summer to let her know that a donor had come forward at Notre Dame, interested in strengthening Catholic urban education in Milwaukee.

“I said, ‘Steve, I think we need to gather our resources. We are deeply appreciative of what Notre Dame can give to us, but we also have local organizations that have stepped forward and said we want to assist, we want to help strengthen,”

Cepelka said. So, they called a mini-summit in August with ACE Consulting representatives and local partners, including the Catholic Schools office, Greater Milwaukee Catholic Education Consortium, Marquette University Catholic Leadership Institute, Partners Advancing Values in Education, Stollenwerk Family Foundation, School Choice Wisconsin and Milwaukee Succeeds.

“All of these partners came together with ACE Consulting and agreed that the best way to proceed would not be to leap into having each partner do something now … but systematically determine what schools need and then rally or, in the archbishop’s perfect term I think, marshal the resources to address the needs where they exist,” Cepelka said. “Because we’ve got all of these organizations with a wealth of resources, let’s figure out how to pull all of this together in a reasonable, efficient way.”

Virgadamo explained that Notre Dame will engage its ACE Consulting team in an in-depth assessment of each of the 26 urban Catholic elementary schools in the areas of Catholic identity, academic excellence, financial management, ownership/governance/administration, and institutional advancement.

“We believe that one of the central goals of our Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee is to serve as many students as possible with the highest quality of Catholic education, and we know that each of your schools strives to do that each day,” Virgadamo said. “We especially believe that we have a special call to serve those communities who have the greatest need and who have, in a sense, been marginalized by our larger society.”

Virgadamo said the team has been asked to collaborate with the archdiocesan leadership to do the diagnostic work – preparing a unified vision of Catholic schools in the city of Milwaukee by determining what the schools would look like in 10 or 15 years if resources weren’t a problem.

“If we’re going to go always higher, we have to determine where we’re going,” he said.

The strategic assessment, which will be covered by benefactors to Catholic education, will include all campuses of the 26 schools, separated by geographic region into three “cohorts.”

“There are significant and different challenges and opportunities by geographic location across this great city,” Virgadamo said, noting that they will produce a report from each cohort identifying its challenges and opportunities.
Cohort 1, which began in February, should be completed by this June, for Blessed Savior, Catholic East, Messmer Catholic Schools St. Rose and St. Leo and Messmer Preparatory, Mother of Good Counsel, Northwest Catholic, St. Catherine, St. Margaret Mary, St. Sebastian and St. Vincent Pallotti.

The assessment for schools in Cohort 2 will begin this August and finish in December for Holy Wisdom, Nativity Jesuit, Notre Dame Middle School, Prince of Peace, St. Adalbert, St. Anthony, St. John Kanty, St. Josaphat and St. Raphael the Archangel. Cohort 3, which will be assessed from January 2014 through June 2014, is comprised of Blessed Sacrament, Divine Mercy, Our Lady Queen of Peace, St. Charles Borromeo, St. Matthias, St. Roman and St. Thomas Aquinas.

Once the three reports are made, one assessment report will identify the common needs across all three of the cohorts, Virgadamo said. A report from the Catholic Schools office will also be taken into consideration, noting challenges and opportunities unique to specific schools, he added.

Data will be collected through the school, listening sessions and exploratory interviews conducted with principals, pastors, board members, parish council members and finance council members, and collaboration with the Catholic Schools office.

Virgadamo explained that once the diagnostic component is completed to show where the schools are, the partners will come back to the table to identify the resources they bring and to help develop a plan of action.

“Together we are better than the sum of our parts and together we are going to be able to take a legacy that we’ve been given to new heights.…” he said. “The new paradigm is we are going forward and we are going to put more children in great Catholic schools because that legacy that we’ve been given is far too important, but we can’t do it alone. We’ve got to be able to work together to make that happen.”

The formula for getting more children into the Catholic schools, more people involved in the schools and more financial resources is a quality Catholic education, in addition to sound business management and effective marketing, according to Virgadamo.

“Only working together are we going to be able to (take Catholic schools) semper altius (always higher),” he said.