Calls for Doing Better Set Tone for Catholic Schools Conference

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Perhaps Kathleen Cepelka effectively summed up a half-day conference Wednesday on the future of Catholic kindergarten through twelfth grade schools simply by describing the state of the schools in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.

Cepelka, the superintendent of schools in the archdiocese, told the full-house audience in the Appellate Courtroom of Eckstein Hall about the strengths of schools in Milwaukee, about positive developments in enrollment, and about the many praiseworthy people and organizations involved in making the schools as good as they are.

But, she said, the quality of some of the schools isn’t what it needs to be and there are weak levels of achievement among students in some schools.  “We are not satisfied,” she said.

That mix — loyalty and pride in Catholic schools with an understanding of the pressing need to improve —  was voiced frequently during the conference, “The Future of Catholic K-12 Education: National and Milwaukee Perspectives,” sponsored by Marquette Law School and the Marquette College of Education.  Maybe “we are not satisfied” could have been the slogan for the event.  

The conference offered expert insights on national trends involving Catholic schools.

In the opening session, Margaret F. Brinig and Nicole Stelle Garnett, both Notre Dame Law School professors, described what they found in researching their 2014 book, “Lost Classroom, Lost Community: Catholic Schools’ Importance in Urban America.”

They told moderator Mike Gousha, Marquette Law School’s distinguished fellow in law and public policy, that the closing of Catholic schools in urban areas correlates with a decline in the “social capital” of the surrounding neighborhoods. The data they crunched, focused largely on Chicago, controlled for a range of other aspects of neighborhoods and found negative impact on neighborhoods that matched specifically with Catholic school closings. Similar results were found in Philadelphia, although not in Los Angeles, the two said, adding that Los Angeles has some of the lowest social capital on a neighborhood basis of any place in the country.

One aspect of what Brinig and Garnett found in studying school closings was that if a parish priest and others involved in a parish fought to keep a school open, they often succeeded. That led the authors to encourage Catholic school communities to advocate strongly for their future.

The law professors also said that the broader social good accomplished by having Catholic schools in urban neighborhoods was an argument for public funding, such as school vouchers, to support continuation of those schools.

In a second session, two nationally prominent school reform advocates argued provocatively for major changes in the way Catholic schools operate.

Kathleen Porter-Magee was recently named superintendent and chief academic officer for the Partnership for Inner-City Education in New York, which means she is overseeing an effort to raise substantially the academic success in six Catholic schools in Harlem and the Bronx.

Porter-Magee said she was aiming to establish among the adults involved in the schools a clear, shared vision of “what excellence looks like.” She said the schools have a lot of teachers who have high potential but who have gotten little meaningful feedback or coaching on improving their work. A lot of Catholic school teachers have raw talent, are good at maintaining order, structure and so on, she said. “Developing the talent we have is the first thing to focus on,” she said. Improving the talent pipeline for future teachers is also important. And she is implementing large changes in how reading and other subjects are taught.

Andy Smarick is a partner in a Washington-based education non-profit, Bellwether Education Partners, and is a senior policy fellow with the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. The state of Catholic education has been a focus of much of his research and advocacy.

On one hand, Smarick pointed to concerning trends of decline in Catholic schools nationwide. But on the other hand, he said, “I’ve never been more excited than I am now” about the potential for good things happening. In his view, the good things involve a lot of change in how Catholic schools are overseen and operated.

Smarick said Catholic leaders have a choice: “Keep doing the things we’ve been doing that have led to our slow demise consistently for half a century. Or open your minds and do thing differently. We’re starting to see on the horizon sunlight for the very first time.”

He said some church leaders are too resistant to change. “It was time for the milkman to go away. It was time for trains to get replaced by airplanes. Progress sometimes is progress,” he said. “And that means breaking eggs sometimes to make omelets. So I’m bullish about the possibility of young entrepreneurs and related laity in these systems saying we have to try things differently, and that means replacing yesterday’s Catholic schools with a new breed of Catholic schools.”

Smarick offered three areas that need to change: ”Straight up transparency and accountability” that makes very clear how a school is doing when it comes to outcomes for students; an understanding of the changing landscape of educational options for parents so that Catholic schools are ones more parents choose for their children; and unleashing more “entrepreneurialism” among those who want to run or work in Catholic schools.

Smarick and Porter-Magee both said that many talented young Catholic educators are going to work in charter schools rather than Catholic schools because their freedom to pursue fresh ways to get better results was much greater. Smarick said he was encouraged by what is unfolding in cities around the country where an “analog” to charter schools is arising for Catholic education.

The third session of the conference focused on Milwaukee, with Superintendent Cepelka being joined by Laura Gutierrez, vice president of academic affairs for the 2,000-student St. Anthony School on Milwaukee’s south side, and the Very Rev. Tim Kitzke, a member of the pastoral team for several parishes in Milwaukee and a leader of Catholic East Elementary School.

Cepelka said enrollment in Catholic schools in the Milwaukee area was defying national trends. But without publicly-funded vouchers, she said, schools would be in “a very different place . . . a scary and probably a purely-survival mode.”  She said that 27 urban grade schools in the archdiocese offer some bright spots, but, overall, “our deepest concern” is the quality of the schools.

Gutierrez described the parents and students of St. Anthony, close to 100% of them Hispanic, and said they are looking for faith formation and safety as well as a good education.

Kitzke said that 15 years ago, he would not have sent a hypothetical child of his own to Catholic East because the school was offering “a bad product.” But the school has made major strides to improve and now he would send that hypothetical child to the school. Schools such as Catholic East, he said, need to do more to change their culture to focus on children and their needs.

Cepelka said Catholic schools need to pay attention to every inch of a child’s path. ‘We have a ways to go in that regard,” she said. As for administration of the Catholic schools overall, she said, “We need a new way of doing business” that assists schools more effectively.

At the end of the event, Law School Dean Joseph D. Kearney announced that the Marquette Law School Poll will undertake a project to shed light on opinion among Catholics in several parts of the country on Catholic education. He said the poll results would be presented at a future event that would further the Law School’s interest in issues involving Catholic education.

Video of the morning-long conference may be viewed by clicking here.

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One Response to “Calls for Doing Better Set Tone for Catholic Schools Conference”

  1. Jack Gebhardt Says:

    Thank you to Marquette Law School and Mike Gousha for offering the forum for critical debate and open discussion. The history of Catholic education in the United States has a great tradition and rich legacy at the both the K-12 and higher education levels. As we contemplate the future of our country, we must ensure that Catholic schools continue to play a key role in urban and suburban education. I commend everyone in the Milwaukee area who has participated in becoming part of the solution, and I implore those contemplating getting involved to take that leap of faith today.

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