When then-Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan launched the Faith in Our Future capital campaign in 2007, he said it would provide resources needed to strengthen Catholic education and faith formation for the future of the church.

Part of that future, Seton Catholic Schools, became the beneficiary of some of those resources in late January when the Faith in Our Future Trust approved two grants of $1 million each for the school system focused on transformational change in urban Catholic education.

The announcement of the grants, the largest ever given by the Faith in Our Future Trust, was made Tuesday, Feb. 16, to more than 600 attendees during the Archbishop’s Catholic Schools Dinner at the Hyatt Regency, Milwaukee.

Both grants are from the trust’s Centers of Excellence Fund which supports “initiatives that seek to renew the quality of Catholic schools within the Archdiocese of Milwaukee as well as model projects that demonstrate the principles of the Centers of Excellence,” according to the Faith in Our Future Trust website.

One is an unrestricted grant that will be used to finance part of the system’s costs during its first two years of operation.

The second is a matching grant in which the trust will match up to $1 million money raised by Seton Catholic Schools during 2016.

“We wanted to motivate other donors to accelerate implementation of Seton Schools,” said Mary Ellen Stanek, chief investment officer for Robert W. Baird advisers and one of the trust’s trustees, in a Feb. 11 interview with the Catholic Herald. “If it works, that will be $3 million.”

Don Drees, president of Seton Catholic Schools, is aiming higher.

“Honestly, we’re hoping it’s more than $3 million. We want to use the challenge portion of this as an incentive to generate as many other funding sources as possible,” he told the Catholic Herald Feb. 15. “Whether it’s a one-to-one match or a three-to-one match, we don’t know. When we’re talking to potential contributors to Seton Catholic Schools, we’ll be talking about the challenge grant that is out there.”

Making the case

While the trustees, which also include Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki; Kris O’Meara, a real estate developer; and Joseph Kearney, dean of the Marquette University School of Law, wanted to do what they could to help Seton Catholic Schools, “they asked tough questions,” according to Drees. In reply, Seton presented a case for success.

“One being this is growth model. This is not about closing schools. It’s the exact opposite,” he said. “We think we can grow enrollment. My sense, in talking to the trustees, the fact of the scale of impact this could have on the Catholic community at large was viewed as very positive.”

Drees said the other factor was presenting a “pro forma business case” that projected what Seton could do three or four years out, showing its self-sustainability and its ability to make the improvements in urban Catholic education it promised.

“Providing upfront seed money for something that could sustain itself for the long term was viewed very favorably,” he said. “They wanted to understand how the dollars would be used; they wanted to understand the sustainability of the model out there; those were the primary concerns.”

Stanek, noting that the trustees had been impressed with the people and the business plan, said Seton Catholic Schools is the kind of undertaking for which the trust had been looking.

“We’ve been searching for ideas to be able to provide transformational gifts. Seton Catholic Schools people talked about transformational change – lasting, positive change,” she said.

Academic achievement drives enrollment

Drees said there are “five big areas of investment” for establishing Seton Catholic Schools, whose start-up costs he estimated at around $10 million for the first two years. He highlighted “academic capacity building” which will drive enrollment.

“We’re going to bring additional academic instructional resources into the classroom. These are the instructional coaches, specialty teachers, education assistants,” he said. “What we want to do is invest in the academic horsepower, the teaching horsepower in the classroom to progress in terms of the academic development growth of our students.”
Another area of investment is academic and spiritual formation programs.

“That’s improvement to how we instruct, how we support the instruction, materials in the classroom, and professional development for teachers, Drees said.

Other areas are compensation for principals and teachers; building up Seton services, e.g., a common financial system; and facilities improvement.

“We’re going to over-invest in terms of teaching resources in the classroom to drive academic performance with the belief that when we have schools that are doing very well academically in a faith-based, Catholic environment that’ll be attractive to families in terms of sending their students to our schools, which then becomes a self-sustaining model,” he said. “So we really do view this as a capacity building sort of fundraising activity.”

Stanek said the Faith in Our Future Trust’s commitment to Seton was “a call to action to other donors.”

“There’s a sense of urgency; the need is there,” she said. “Children can’t afford to wait.”

For Drees, the trust’s commitment is more than financial.

“We’re just thrilled with the relationship and the trust Faith in Our Future trustees have put in Seton Catholic Schools. Honestly, beyond even these grants, the fact that they’re active advocates for Catholic education and Seton Catholic Schools in particular … the value of their leadership is going to go beyond their grants,” he said.