Historically, children in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee received their education at their parish schools. However, with the changing demographics, many of the urban Catholic schools closed or lacked the funding to be competitive with larger and more affluent parish schools in the area. As a result, children either transferred to local public schools or continued in their underfunded parish schools.
The need for a better model attracted the attention of various business leaders in the city as well as members of the archdiocese, especially Dr. Kathleen Cepelka, the superintendent of Catholic schools.
“This issue was raised to a new level of awareness by the book, ‘Lost Classroom, Lost Community: Catholic Schools’ Importance in Urban America,’ by Margaret F. Brinig and Nicole Stelle Garnett,” Cepelka said.
The book chronicles the past 30 years of urban education, during which more than 1,600 Catholic elementary and secondary schools have closed, and more than 4,500 charter schools, which are public schools that are often privately operated, have opened in urban areas. Focusing on Catholic school closures, the book examines the implications of these dramatic shifts in the urban educational landscape, including the unraveling of the social fabric of neighborhoods that often followed.
“This was brought to the forefront of our attention and discernment: that urban Catholic schools needed investment to meet the needs of their students for the broader benefit of their neighborhoods. This is no indictment of the schools, as they all had caring teachers, principals and staff, but with limited resources, they were not able to find ways to improve their situation and thrive,” Cepelka said. “It was heartbreaking and doubly handicapping to 2,500 children, who amount to 10 percent of the Catholic school population in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.”
Out of great love for the children, their futures and families, Seton Catholic Schools were developed to standardize Catholic education and teaching methods, providing each child with an equal footing.
Seton Catholic Schools began operations with nine schools for the 2016-17 academic year after intense research and study.
“We learned a lot of valuable lessons in the beginning, and while there were challenges, our vision was to do the best for the families and children through what Catholic education in a holistic sense could offer,” said Cepelka. “In addition to a standardized curriculum and teaching methods, we also require extensive professional development for principals and school leaders. We likewise provide extra resources for students with individualized needs.”
By pooling resources and creating a network to give children the best possible education and provide spiritual support for families, Seton has made a tremendous impact in the community. Throughout the pandemic, they shined by providing students with Chromebooks, internet access, homework packets and thousands of meals for students and their families.
“Under our new model, these urban Catholic schools can grow as they will be financially viable and have the benefits Seton can provide as an integrated network to serve their community. We are constantly re-evaluating how best to employ our resources to the benefit of students and their families,” said Cepelka. “We are so happy that we have teachers who choose to be part of Seton, as well as parents who are not Catholic and those who are Catholic that choose to send their children to our schools. My heart is thrilled with how many believe in this model and are passionate about the Seton Family of Catholic Schools, and we are thus able to drive forward in success.”