MILWAUKEE — Two rows of St. Anthony School students cloaked in heavy winter jackets and armed with “welcome” signs stand on the sidewalk outside of Keyser Hall on Ninth Street and wait patiently for their guests to arrive on Monday, Nov. 18.
The elementary school is gathered to greet visitors from the University of Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE). St. Anthony has been a partner with ACE for three years and recently was evaluated by the program.
Congregation of the Holy Cross Fr. Tim Scully, one of the founding members of ACE, and others from the program have been traveling on a bus visiting schools nationwide to promote Catholic education. On this day, their last stop before going back to campus, they’re a little late.
But when the bus finally makes the turn down Ninth Street, students start cheering and waving their signs as high as they can hold them.
“I just think this is a little miracle here in the middle of, to be honest with you, a struggling school system,” Fr. Scully said of St. Anthony School. “It is so difficult to find places that are really providing a quality experience of faith-based education.”
According to its website, ACE “impacts the lives of several hundred thousand children nationwide by preparing highly talented teachers, principals and school leaders, while offering an array of professional services for U.S. Catholic schools, the world’s largest private school system.”
To mark its 20th year of service, ACE has launched the Fighting for Our Children’s Future National Bus Tour, a cross-country effort to raise awareness of the impact that Catholic schools have upon children and society, and “to celebrate the unique role that Catholic schools play as agents of formation and social transformation,” according to the website.
The tour began Oct. 5 in Dallas in conjunction with the Notre Dame vs. Arizona State University football game. The bus tour traveled to the Midwest and East Coast this fall and in spring will visit the South, Southwest and West Coast. The visit to Milwaukee closed out the first leg of the tour and marked the 14th city the tour has visited since it began.
Each stop included different events, including visits to Catholic schools, conversations with local political figures and meetings with civic and diocesan and educational leaders to discuss concerns.
“We honestly feel as a movement that there’s not enough private money in the world to support all the needs of inner-city, faith-based schools around the United States,” said Fr. Scully.
He called St. Anthony School a great example of what is possible when tax incentives, like parental school choice, are applied to Catholic education.
“What St. Anthony demonstrates is a public, private partnership for faith-based education, which is sustainable and which brings children to both college and heaven,” Fr. Scully said. “We’re looking forward to building other replicable sustainable models based on the experience very similar to St. Anthony.”
Zeus Rodriguez, president of St. Anthony, said ACE has been supportive of the school.
“They use us as a model for other places around the country,” he said. “Milwaukee is the first parental choice program so that made it easier for schools like ours to receive more students.”
In the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, the ACE program has given support for disadvantaged students.
“It expands our potential for making a difference in Catholic education in Milwaukee,” said Kathleen Cepelka, superintendent of Catholic schools for the archdiocese.
Cepelka said working with ACE gives the archdiocese the maximum ability to grow schools.
“We’re very proud of St. Anthony,” she said. “Not just because it’s the largest Catholic school in the country (with a K-4 to grade 12 enrollment of 1,835 students) but because it is a place where, on the south side of Milwaukee, the children and families who participate in the school are able to experience hope.”
Cepelka said St. Anthony is positive force in the community.
“When you drive through these streets and realize the, in a sense, darkness that is here in terms of violence and unrest, St. Anthony’s is a real beacon of hope,” she said.
Fr. Scully believes Catholic education is something to be cherished in the country.
“We started this because we believe Catholic schools are a national treasure, not only for our church but for our civil society,” Fr. Scully said. “We believe that an America that only has the option of state-run schools for inner-city kids is an America that’s greatly impoverished.”