MILWAUKEE — When Fr. Larry Chapman became pastor of St. Catherine Parish on 51st and Center streets in Milwaukee in June 2014, the parish school presented a challenge: It had overestimated the number of students that would enroll for the 2014-2015 school year.
“That put us in a real tight financial situation,” he said.
Fr. Chapman said during that “really tough year,” he spoke with Kathleen Cepelka, superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, who told him the archdiocese wanted St. Catherine School to remain open for another year.
It did, but going into the 2015-2016 school year, Fr. Chapman made what he termed “major adjustments.”
“The major adjustment is that we got a brand new, very hard working principal (Michael Turner) who is doing many, many good things way above and beyond the call of duty, and has changed the culture of the school,” the priest said.
While Turner, a former Milwaukee Public Schools teacher who became a first-time principal at St. Catherine, was working to develop the school’s potential, the archdiocese was inviting St. Catherine to be part of the first, nine-member cohort for Seton Catholic Schools.[su_pullquote align=”right”]See related stories:
Catholicism a constant at St. Catherine School[/su_pullquote]
Seton Catholic Schools is an independently chartered and governed 501 (c)(3) corporation with a board of directors comprised of Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki, Cepelka, pastors and academic and community leaders. It sets policy, strategy, direction and approves operational funding.
Principals, teachers and staffs are employees of Seton Catholic Schools.
Financial support comes from title funds and other government programs, as well as through a development component that focuses on foundations and corporations.
“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 told the Catholic Herald in January. “It will be embedded in the work of the archdiocese.”
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.”
Admitting he used the word “takeover” when he first learned about Seton, Fr. Chapman said he “moved quickly away from that” when he saw Seton and St. Catherine were headed in the same direction.
“We felt if we are starting something positive, and with Seton going in the direction we want to go, it really seemed like a good fit,” he said.
Terming Seton “accommodating,” i.e., understanding St. Catherine’s niche as an urban, African American school, Turner said that accommodation allowed the school to focus on what it needed to accomplish.
“There’s an energy here (now) that’s been lacking. I use the analogy of a home that has someone who’s been sick for a while. And it’s all closed up. You walk in, throw the blinds open and open the windows and the air changes,” he said. “That’s the sense I had from day one, that was my primary goal – to open the windows around here and allow everyone to sense that there’s something different, or something else possible than what had been.”
Fr. Chapman said parishioners who were aware that the school’s “test results and standards were pretty low” wanted to improve them.
“We need to serve this community better, and if the school is a way of doing that, because that’s a way of reaching out to the community educationally, then we’ve got to be doing a better job,” he said of parishioners’ attitude.
The priest said they were embarrassed at having low test scores.
“That’s not serving the neighborhood, that’s not serving the community we want to serve,” he recalled hearing from church members. “So this was a motivation for parishioners as to how the parish should be of service.”
Turner recalled a meeting for first-year principals at which Cepelka noted that St. Catherine was in “the poorest community, the poorest neighborhood.”
“There are many days not only are we feeding our children, we’re clothing them, we’re providing some rudimentary health care, and vision screening and hearing screening,” Turner said, “because if we’re going to be a beacon of light, to use one of Kathleen’s (Cepelka) phrases, in this community, then those are the kind of things we need to provide because those are the things that are lacking in our community.”
While numbers may not tell the entire story, both pastor and principal see a quantifiable improvement based on increased enrollment.
Two years ago, there were 130 students at St. Catherine. Last year, there were around 158. Preparing for the opening of this school year, Aug. 29, Turner was anticipating 175 students in K3-8th grade.
While both want to grow enrollment, they want to do it carefully – 20 to 30 students per year.
“We want slow enough growth so that the people coming in are genuinely influenced by the people who are here. People who are already here can say to the people coming in, ‘This is how we do it at St. Catherine’s,’” Fr. Chapman said.
As for the impact the school will have on its students, Turner wants their education to prepare them for entry into a Catholic high school.
“Not to sound too corporate cliché about it, but that’s our goal: Foster kids who are coming, in our case, from pretty difficult backgrounds and show them the possibilities of another way,” he said.
Fr. Chapman added, “I would hope a kid that would go to Pius (XI), for example, and would be proud to say, ‘I’m from St. Catherine’s. What school did you go to?’ That they are proud of what they did here.”