Catholic education is vital to communities and to the church, but if it’s to continue, it must be open to different delivery models and innovative ways of teaching.
That was the consensus of panelists gathered at the Marquette University Law School Nov. 19 for a half-day conference, “The Future of Catholic K-12 Education: National and Milwaukee Perspectives.”
In opening the conference, Marquette University president Michael R. Lovell suggested that many of the problems facing Milwaukee could be solved through education, particularly Catholic education because of the values it imparts.
Marquette, as a thought leader in the community, and law school dean, Joseph D. Kearney, organized the conference in order initiate discussion on Catholic education, something Lovell described as a critically important topic not only in Milwaukee but in the country.
Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki delivered the invocation and also spoke of the impact Catholic education has on society.
“We gather this morning because we care about Catholic education,” he said, adding, “We know intuitively that the Catholic education we received made a difference in our lives and in others’ lives …. At this point in our history, we cannot permit Catholic education to disappear in our social landscape.”
National, local perspectives
The conference, attended by about 200 people, primarily Catholic school educators and administrators, included three panels. The first, moderated by journalist and Marquette’s distinguished fellow in law and public policy Mike Gousha, featured Margaret F. Brinig and Nicole Stelle Garnett, authors of a book that looked at the correlation between the closing of Catholic schools and its impact on the neighborhood.
A second panel, moderated by senior fellow in law and public policy, Alan Borsuk, offered a look at national innovations through the experiences of Andy Smarick, a partner at Bellwether Education Partners and former deputy assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Education, and Kathleen Porter-Magee, superintendent and chief academic officer for a network of schools in the Archdiocese of New York.
A third panel, also moderated by Gousha, offered a local perspective through the experiences of Laura Gutierrez, principal at St. Anthony School, Milwaukee; Kathleen Cepelka, superintendent of Catholic Schools for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, and Fr. Tim Kitzke, member of the pastoral team serving several Milwaukee parishes and a member of the corporate board of Catholic East Elementary School, Milwaukee.
School closing can trigger crime
The closing of a Catholic school, especially in an urban area, can trigger disorder and crime, according to Brinig and Garnett, authors of “Lost Classroom, Lost Community: Catholic Schools’ Importance in Urban America,” published this year by Chicago Press.
The authors, both professors at Notre Dame Law School, through research done in Chicago, Philadelphia and LosAngeles, discovered a correlation between the presence of a Catholic school in the neighborhood and decreasing crime.
“We know there is no decrease in crime when charter schools are there, but there is a decrease in crime when the Catholic school is there,” said Brinig.
In looking at the reasons Catholic schools close, the researchers said the single most important variable is leadership. Pastors who strongly support the school and work to keep it open are generally successful, they noted, pleading with archbishops and cardinals to “do a better job of picking who goes where. If (a priest) is not interested in a Catholic school, don’t send him to a parish with a school,” said Brinig.
In spite of declining numbers of Catholic students – approximately 2 million in 2013-2014, down from its peak in the early 1960s of more than 5.2 million – the authors remain optimistic about the future of Catholic education.
“If nothing is done, we will see a continuation of this trend, but I am hopeful and prayerful that it can change,” said Brinig, adding that Catholic schools are important as places to evangelize parents as well as to foster more vocations for the church.
Pointing to a plenary session on Catholic education at the recent gathering of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Garnett said she is optimistic church leaders are recognizing the need to address the future.
New approaches, such as the parental choice program in Wisconsin, can be transformative, she added.
New York trying new approach
In July, Porter-Magee was named superintendent and chief academic officer of the Partnership for Inner-City Education, a network of Catholic elementary schools in Harlem and the South Bronx. It’s the first independent organization to have been given – in 2013 – the task of managing a set of schools in the Archdiocese of New York.
Calling this approach to administration “a real opportunity,” Porter-Magee said she is “incredibly optimistic about the future of Catholic education and urban Catholic education,” explaining that this approach allows them to take the best approaches from urban charter schools, but to incorporate the character and values so central to Catholic education.
Achievement has been unacceptably low in these urban schools, acknowledged Porter-Magee, but she said she is attempting to preserve Catholic identity, return the schools to the age where academic excellence is the hallmark of a Catholic school, implement a knowledge-rich curriculum and improve instruction.
Reason for optimism
Admitting that in the face of 50 years of declining enrollments and closing schools he has been pessimistic about the future of Catholic education, Smarick, who has written about Catholic and public elementary and secondary schools, said he is beginning to see “exciting new stuff on the horizon.”
New approaches to administration such as the network overseen by Porter-Magee is one such innovation, he said.
“I think Catholic education is on the verge of renaissance, especially in urban areas, but it will look different,” he said.
Just as the public school systems have become more transparent and accountable, so must Catholic schools, he said, adding they must not only set standards, but must be very clear about their outcomes and statistics, such as true graduation rates and ACT scores.
Competitive marketplace for schools
The schools operate in a competitive marketplace, he said, noting it’s not just district schools and religious schools, rather there are many options for parents, such as charter schools.
Because of increased competition, Catholic schools must turn to entrepreneurialism, must think outside the system and must embrace new approaches, he said.
“When we combine those things, new leaders, new ideas, we can preserve the faith while reforming the church. In this way we can all believe in Catholic education and those principles we want to fight for, but these man-made institutions may not be working, but we can reform delivery and it’s why I see most excitement moving forward,” he said, adding he hopes every bishop thinking about the future of Catholic education surrounds himself with groups of people “who are rabble-rousers like I am, someone pushing these questions…”
Archdiocese defies national trends
Panelists Cepelka, Gutierrez and Fr. Kitzke painted a positive look at Catholic education in the Milwaukee Archdiocese, an archdiocese defying national trends in terms of declining enrollment.
For the second consecutive year, enrollment has risen slightly, said Cepelka, a trend likely to continue next year with the opening of a 15th Catholic high school, Cristo Rey.
Gutierrez, former assistant principal and director of instruction at Bruce Guadalupe School, recently became vice president of academic affairs at St. Anthony School, the largest Catholic school in the country with an enrollment of 2,075.
Fr. Kitzke is also part of an educational success story at Catholic East Elementary School, but he noted it took leadership and determination for the school to thrive.
Catholic East, he said, was originally eight failing parish schools on Milwaukee’s East Side. The schools merged, but the product was initially sub-standard.
“Fifteen years ago, if I had children, I would not have sent them to our school,” he admitted. “It was a bad product, not well run.”
He and the other priests who comprised the leadership for the parishes contacted then-Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan and “asked to put Catholic East on the sick list for parishes. He basically said, ‘No, unless you make this work, you all will be on the sick list,’” said Fr. Kitzke.
“The four of us realized we needed to make a turnaround,” and he described how they eliminated the parochial culture of the school and expanded their vision to a collaborative effort.
“In all of this, I’m much more in sales than in production and I can say now that if I had a child, I would send them to our school,” he said proudly, adding that he’s learned in the process that he had to stop worrying and rather trust in the Lord.
“We have to stop worrying so much about money. If you build it, they will come. Money follows mission and if you get a good mission going, money will come,” said Fr. Kitzke.
Parental choice a gamechanger
Admitting that without the school choice voucher program, the landscape of Catholic education in the archdiocese would be greatly impacted and would likely be “purely survival mode,” Cepelka said the program shows the desire on the part of parents to have their children in places that are safe with a loving atmosphere.
“We provide those fundamentally important components – certainly to give their kids the best possible opportunity to be safe, loved and have a chance at college,” she said of the archdiocese’s schools, 27 of which are urban.
“What is working,” added Cepelka, “is the fundamentally safe and sound, loving structures that always characterized Catholic schools are still there. A person can walk into any Catholic school in our city and be part of a sense of purposefulness.”
In closing the conference, Kearney announced the MU Law School will conduct a major national survey of public opinion on Catholic education, the results of which will likely be the basis for a follow-up conference.