It was back in 2010 that newly-installed Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki visited Racine and invited the area’s pastors to explore the idea of formally uniting their six Catholic schools under one system.

Later this month, he’ll be receiving a proposal that outlines that very system – an as-yet-to-be-named collaboration of Racine’s five Catholic elementary schools and St. Catherine’s High School. It’s an answer seven years in the making — but the story really gets its start decades earlier, in the living room of Louise Hamilton, a local parent and teacher at St. Patrick’s School.

It was about the year 1960 that Hamilton and a few others invited all the Racine pastors to the Hamilton home to discuss the idea of a Catholic school system. It was a move, they argued, that would rejuvenate the schools’ mission and bring some much-needed focus to their oversight.

Subsequent meetings ensued, but nothing really came of that effort, except for the implementation of advisory school boards.

“It became obvious that was about the best we were going to do,” said Hamilton. “Some of the schools wanted to cooperate as a group, and some were against it … getting the parishioners, the people who are supporting the schools involved, is a necessary thing.”

In order for the system to work, it had to be the desire of everyone involved. And all the key organizers agree: by 2010, the time for that truly grassroots effort had come. Though the request came from the archbishop, the proposal is the work of the stakeholders themselves — school parents and grandparents, faculty members, clergy and religious who represent the area’s 1,600 Catholic students.

It was imperative from the start that a spirit of “shared ownership” be the driving force behind the project, said Brenda White, associate superintendent for Catholic schools. “There was significant input from the community, we got an amazing number of Racine Catholic leaders from the parishes involved on task forces,” she said.

“We had parish trustees, we had business managers, we had pastors, we had principals, we had Racine Dominican representation, we had lay volunteers,” said governance committee member and board member at St. Catherine’s, Heather Orth, the granddaughter of Louise Hamilton. “It was such a broad representation and a diversity of skills that people brought to each of those teams, and I think that that made our decision-making and our dialogue very rich and very fact-based.”

Providentially, it was around the time of the archbishop’s request in 2010 that the Racine Dominicans were facing a hard reality: they no longer had the resources to sponsor St. Catherine’s, a middle and high school operated in Racine by the order for over 150 years. The order has been, in the words of finance task force chair, Dan Horton, “synonymous with Catholic education in Racine since the 1860s.”

“The demographics and interests of religious congregations are changing dramatically across the country and having an impact on their ability to continue to sponsor and support Catholic high schools,” said Racine Dominican Sr. Chris Broslavick, who is also a member of the steering committee for the new school system. “We want to ensure the long-term presence of a Catholic high school in Racine.”

The Racine Dominicans did not want that to be the fate of St. Catherine’s, said Broslavick — and they also desperately wanted the school to remain a Catholic institution. After consulting with the archdiocese about possible options, the sisters agreed that the creation of a Catholic school system that could take on the responsibility of operating St. Catherine’s was a perfect solution.

“The question thereafter remained: how do we do this?” she said. The answer, as it turns out, was slowly, and with great patience. The work began with visioning sessions throughout the 10 parishes in 2011, and continued with three summits held throughout the years to inform the community of progress and continue gathering feedback.

“The key call back in 2010 was for collaboration. That word jumped out off the paper and out of the discussions,” said White. “But the fear … was potentially losing their unique identity, their parish identity, their unique history, the culture of the school.”

The oldest of Racine’s Catholic schools, St. Patrick’s and St. Joseph’s, date to 1862.

It was helpful that the initiative represented a “growth model,” said Orth. Whereas the terms “collaboration” and “merger” are often code words for “downsizing” in contemporary Catholic lexicon, this was not so with the Racine school system.

“We’re not in this because we’re trying to save a school from closing. We’re talking about opening buildings and putting students in buildings that aren’t being used now,” she said. “I think people understand that we’re in this for positive outcomes in education, that Catholic education is going to grow in Racine, it’s not going to diminish or even hold steady.”

It is not anticipated that any staff positions will be eliminated.

To draft the guiding principles for the new system, the steering committee relied on the National Standards and Benchmarks for Effective Catholic Elementary and Secondary Schools, released by Loyola University in 2012. The Finance Task Team also spent time meeting with other Catholic school systems in the state that had successfully implemented the national standards, including the Green Bay Area Catholic Schools (GRACE) and St. Mary Springs Academy in Fond du Lac.

For the 2017/18 school year, not much will look different for the Catholic students of Racine. Pending the archbishop’s approval of the proposal, a two-tiered board of governance will be established that includes a lay board of directors as well as a board of trustees representing the pastoral leadership of all 10 area parishes and the Racine Dominicans. Three new positions will be created and filled — a president of system, director of schools and director of business.

“This next year is a transition year of getting the board in place and those three leadership positions in place,” said White. “The parishes are pretty much continuing to budget, to plan, and implement and run their schools much the same as they are now.”

“When things start to come up for the following year, those things will be discussed in a collaborative way,” said Orth. “So when the budgets start to be presented or grants need to be applied for or anything needs to be done as a larger group, the schools wouldn’t necessarily do that by themselves – that becomes part of the system doing it together.”
“One of the promises that we made was that staff will not be cut,” said Broslavick. “If people will leave, it will be by their own choosing, because it will be a new way of operating and not everybody will be able to operate in a new way.”

For the parishes who do not currently operate a school, this system will represent a new ministry and expense, the committee acknowledges.

“One of the challenges moving forward will be to find a way to help those parishes feel that these schools are their school, because they won’t be physically located there,” said Horton. “Contributions will depend on size of parish and financial strength, in terms of assets and in terms of envelopes.”

But it’s an investment that the steering committee is confident parishes will agree is in their best interests. As Hamilton points out, many of the schools who were reluctant to collaborate back in 1960 have since closed their doors.

“This is not just about growing the system numerically, it’s about raising standards and helping students achieve more effectively,” said Kathleen Cepelka, Ph.D., superintendent of Catholic Schools. “There is no one way to create a system, and this system is Racine’s system. It’s reflective of the needs of the Racine community. This is empowering people for the purpose of advancing Catholic education, which essentially is the mission of the Church.”

To learn more about the Racine Catholic schools collaboration, please visit: