Last summer, when Kathleen Cepelka, superintendent of Archdiocese of Milwaukee schools, and Don Drees, president of Seton Catholic Schools, brought together at the Cousins Center principals of the 26 schools that will comprise the Seton Catholic School system, they took them to the chapel.

They had the principals close their eyes as he and Cepelka described a picture of what Seton Catholic Schools will look like in three years. Then they asked them three questions:

Can they see it?
Do you believe it?
Do you want it?

“Those are the leadership questions,” Drees told the Catholic Herald Jan. 21. “We need people who know where we’re going, can see the change – people who believe we can get there, that it’s possible, and third, this is going to take a personal commitment, some blood sweat and tears; you’ve really got to want to do this because this is not business as usual.”

Answers to those questions are integral to how Catholic education in the city of Milwaukee is changing. Seton Catholic Schools is the new name and model, but its mission, updated to meet the needs of 21st century students, remains what Catholic education in the archdiocese has been for more than 170 years: formation in the Catholic faith and academic achievement.

The first of three Seton system cohorts will begin operation this fall with nine schools – six of which are in the city. The second and third cohorts will begin in successive years, and will include the remaining 17 schools. A new model of urban Catholic education “has been talked about for many, many years,” according to Cepelka.

“Business people from the city have voiced observations that, just from an efficiency standpoint, there has to be a better way of doing this than to have each individual parish sustaining an individual school,” she told the Catholic Herald Nov. 4.

Transforming the city

The transformation of urban Catholic education, if the vision of those planning, guiding and leading the transformation is realized, will extend far beyond the classrooms and the buildings in which they’re located.

“We want to transform the city of Milwaukee,” Drees said.

He said part of the transformation will involve classrooms having the needed academic resources and assessment tools that can track an individual student’s progress.

“The truth of the matter today in our urban Catholic schools is we have eighth graders who don’t graduate at the eighth grade level. Their performance academically in some of our schools is quite a challenge,” he said. “If you walk into a fifth grade classroom, you probably have students who are performing at a sixth grade level down to a first grade level. That’s the reality of the urban education classroom today.”

Drees said urban Catholic schools haven’t had the resources, e.g., education assistants, who could assist teachers in educating students in classrooms that have a “great deal of variety in terms of the academic capabilities of the students, and the level they’re performing at.”

“Our ultimate goal is that our eighth graders take the Catholic high school entrance exam and are qualified to go to a Catholic high school – not that we have the capacity or the funding source, but it sets the benchmark. That’s the transformation within the classroom,” he said.

Cepelka noted the 25th anniversary of the Wisconsin Parental Choice Program brought renewed focus on quality of education.

“There’s a lot of light being placed on performance of our city schools, almost all of which have participated in the Choice program for as long as the program has existed,” she said. “The fact is we’re not doing as well as we could be; we’re not among the high performing schools in our city and the country.”

Cepelka said addressing the matter was a justice issue.

“It became more imperative that we look at a way of doing this that would ensure leadership and quality were of the highest level, as strong and high and impactful as they could be in each and every school. We have some schools currently that are obviously stronger than others; we have others that are academically, from a Catholic perspective, somewhat fragile.”

Separate yet connected

Seton Catholic Schools is an independently chartered and governed 501c3 corporation with a board of directors comprised of Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki, Cepelka, pastors, and academic and community leaders. It will set policy, strategy, direction and approve operational funding.

Principals, teachers and staffs will be employees of Seton Catholic Schools.

Financial support will come from title funds and other government programs, as well as through a development component that will focus on foundations and corporations. Increasing enrollment is also a factor. Each school will set the amount it charges for tuition.  

“What we’re projecting is 15 percent growth,” Drees explained. “This is year zero. It takes three years for us to get on board. When we grow the academic performance quality of our schools and the Catholic faith-based environment, we will be very attractive for students – especially in the city of Milwaukee.”

The nine schools in the first cohort have a combined enrollment of 2,200. Combined enrollment for the 26 schools is 8,200. By the start of the 2019-2020 school year, Drees projects an enrollment of 10,000.

“We have capacity in these schools for 16,000 to 17,000 students. We want to grow. This is absolutely a growth story. That probably is one of the most exciting things about it as we’re coming off a pretty long history of reductions in Catholic schools,” he said, noting there are no plans to close or consolidate any of the schools.

While the corporate structure is independent, Seton Catholic Schools is still connected to the archdiocese.

“The one significant feature that all of us wanted to be sure was characteristic of the Seton Catholic Schools was that this network of schools would not be distinct from the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, that it not be in any way separate from the church of Milwaukee,” Cepelka said. “It will be embedded in the work of the archdiocese; it will be advancing the teaching mission of our local church which is, of course, the Gospel.”

She noted that each Seton school would need to maintain its accreditation through the archdiocese and the Wisconsin Religious and Independent Schools Association.

“Seton schools must be in compliance with all of our archdiocesan standards, policies and procedures,” Cepelka said. “It will not develop its own set of policies or standards. It will be held to the same standards as other elementary schools.”
Schools with ‘Catholic character’    

Due in part to the Wisconsin Parental Choice Program, children who are not Catholic attend urban Catholic schools. At Seton Catholic Schools, there will be no doubt the school is Catholic – in word and action.

“We will be developing what we’re calling a Catholic character in schools. That is really a way of doing business, a way of behaving, a way of treating others, a way of responding to each other that is grounded in virtue. Not because it is the nice and civil thing to do only – you treat me well, I treat you well – but because this is what our Master Teacher taught us to do.,” Cepelka explained.

She has convened a task force to address Catholic identity and faith formation in the Seton schools. In addition to Sustaining the Mission, a program of Cardinal Stritch University’s St. Clare Center that provides religious education certification of Catholic school teachers in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, the task force is developing what Cepelka termed “a systematic formation of our teachers and our leaders in these urban schools.”

“Formation is the word I am deliberately using to enable them, to prepare them for forming disciples in an urban environment, which assumes, in some cases, a largely non-Catholic population,” she said. “They (teachers and leaders) need to be formed in a unique way to prepare them for this. The culture in these schools, whether the percentage of Catholics is 100 percent or less than that, should be a truly in-depth Catholic culture.”

She said the term “‘culture’ implies the very air that one breathes in a Catholic school.”

“We are really forming these teachers to form their students in such a way that the students understand what it means to be someone who follows in the footsteps of Jesus Christ – someone who is living the Gospel values, whether or not he or she is a baptized Catholic,” Cepelka said, emphasizing teachers have a “unique privilege and challenge” in forming students in the faith.

“It’s really forming the teacher disciples to form student disciples in a way that is totally counter-cultural,” she said.
‘Anchored in the parish’

One aspect of Seton Catholic Schools, according to Drees, is the school/parish relationship.

“We have this basic concept of the parish engagement plan. In its simplest sense, it’s an intentional plan that the principal and pastor share together with the objective of making sure parishioners are proud of their school,” he said, noting there are some places where parishioners view students in the school as “those kids. They’re not our kids.”

Drees said Seton will be working to establish that relationship between the parish and its school.

“We want to strengthen parishes. We want to have a strong relationship with parishes and we want sacramental life to grow within the parish,” he said. “That relationship with the pastor and the leaders of that community is really essential.”

While a school will be part of Seton Catholic Schools, its identity will be unique.

“We’re anchored in the parish,” Drees said. “The school identity in any of our schools is, for example, ‘St. Thomas Aquinas Academy, a Seton Catholic School.’ Their school uniforms, their teams – it’s that local parish.”

He said Seton’s identity has to be the local identity.

“It’s not one size fits all. We’re going to have differences from school to school because there are differences in our parishes and our communities,” Drees said.

Time is now

Cepelka has been an educator long enough to know that even the best plans can encounter hurdles. She said planners acknowledged at the outset there might need to be adjustments and adaptations.

It might sound cliché, but I keep saying, ‘If not this, what? If not us, who? If not now, when?’ These children deserve attention now. Where we are now in many, many cases is not acceptable,” she said. “Good enough isn’t good enough. These are children who, in many cases, do not have what others have in many aspects of their lives.”

Drees concurred.

“We’re biting off a lot. We’re not going to make it all. We’re going to make some mistakes; there’s no doubt about it. But we’re not standing still,” he said.

Asked what she hoped a member of a Seton Catholic School graduating class of 2024 would say about his/her education, Cepelka replied, “I would want them to say something very similar to what our parents I think could say about us: That they were well grounded in the faith, that they were prepared in a rigorous and vigorous manner for whatever they chose to pursue in life, and that they understood there’s life beyond this life. That they were prepared in the way of holiness for eternity.”