Catholic schools can, do and will matter

As the community discussion surrounding Milwaukee’s struggling educational landscape continues, it’s important to consider the 32,000 children currently attending one of 119 Catholic primary and secondary schools in our region.  They’ll certainly be on my mind when I participate in a national summit beginning this weekend at Marquette University, one that focuses on the crucial topic of P-12 Catholic school governance.  Let me explain why.

Catholic schools have traditionally nurtured academic excellence while instilling students with a strong sense of Catholic identity and forming them in the faith.  For that matter, American history tells us that from its beginnings within an immigrant Church, Catholic education amounted to a national treasure.

But over the past 15 or so years, a disappointing one in every five of our Milwaukee Catholic schools has closed its doors.  Unfortunately, it’s a pattern that has played out all across the country.  The reasons for the declines are complex and varied, but in the end they’ve coalesced to make far too many precious Catholic schools unsustainable.

Responding to the needs of our local Catholic schools, the Catholic colleges and universities in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee formed a ground-breaking partnership in 2007 to help.  The Greater Milwaukee Catholic Education Consortium (GMCEC) includes Alverno College, Cardinal Stritch University, Marian University, Marquette University, and Mount Mary University.

We joined forces to create a collective capacity, bringing our respective resources and capabilities together to leverage and assist with:  (1) the professional development of Catholic school teachers and leaders, (2) Catholic identity and faith formation, and (3) organizational effectiveness – namely, factors like finance, fundraising, marketing, technology, strategic planning, data analysis, and of course, governance, that ultimately keep schools viable.

As one of the co-founders of the GMCEC, I’m proud that the summit we’re hosting October 7-9 will draw participants from all across the United States and from all strata of Catholic education — parents, teachers, principals, board members, college faculty and administrators, Archdiocesan central office staff, officials from the National Catholic Education Association, clergy, and even our five university presidents whose Tuesday panel discussion figures to be a highlight.  With this rich mix of Catholic school stakeholders, the conversation is bound to be provocative.

This is the fifth such summit sponsored by an informal group called the Catholic Higher Education Collaborative or CHEC.  Past summits have focused on the immigrant church, Catholic school leadership, academic excellence, and Catholic identity, and they’ve stretched in locale from Boston to Los Angeles.  Next year will mark the final CHEC summit, this time at Notre Dame, where the topic will be financial stewardship.

Specific to this coming week’s summit, though, it’s also gratifying that our topic centers on dynamic and effective Catholic school governance, one of the biggest challenges facing P-12 Catholic education, yet ironically, one of its most promising spheres of opportunity. To the extent that Catholic schools get governance right, almost all of the viability factors will align themselves positively.

How schools operate — from board composition and configuration to policies and procedures to sponsorship to management and authority to accountability — all serve to determine the vitality of a Catholic school.  In other words, academic excellence, Catholic identity and faith formation, and organizational effectiveness each depend in large measure on school governance.

With that admittedly idealistic goal in mind, a planning committee led by Dr. Jennifer Maney, the Institutional Coordinator of the GMCEC, has managed to assemble a remarkable array of experts who will share their experience and wisdom as speakers and panelists.  Think cutting edge here.  As a result, the event figures to be a watershed moment in addressing the intractable problems of governing Catholic schools.

Clearly there is hope for Catholic schools in Milwaukee.  We have an Archbishop who understands, appreciates, and supports Catholic schools in the Most Reverend Jerome Listecki, an exceptional Superintendent of Catholic Schools in Kathleen Cepelka, and outstanding professional administrators in our Archdiocese’s Office For Schools — not to mention plenty of gifted and passionate principals and teachers, the heart and soul of P-12 Catholic education.

It’s encouraging that enrollments are up this year across the Archdiocese, and a close inspection of the schools that have fared best in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program will likely show that a disproportionate number of them are Catholic schools.  We are fortunate to have a caring Catholic philanthropic community as evidenced by the Stollenwerk Family Foundation whose significant generosity has made the GMCEC both possible and impactful.

As far as Marquette’s involvement beyond the GMCEC, we’re providing the hope of a Cristo Rey high school in the city by conducting a required feasibility study.  With its college preparatory curriculum and innovative corporate work placement program, a Cristo Rey school could be a difference maker in our city. I should also mention the likely establishment of a new institute at the university whose focus should revolve around Catholic school leadership.  Although still in its planning stages, the institute will work closely with yet another ray of the hope, the GMCEC itself.

The GMCEC is regarded by our peers as THE national model for how Catholic colleges and universities should engage with urban Archdioceses around schooling.  The impact that our partnership has already exerted is nothing short of extraordinary – reaching numerous Catholic schools, hundreds of teachers, dozens of principals, as well as many school presidents and board members, and most of all — children, and families.

Almost all of this important work has been done by academic and administrative professionals from across our five institutions who volunteer their services.  And we believe that we’re just scratching the surface.

Trust me, Catholic schools will matter more.

Post By billhenk (1 Posts)

Dr. Bill Henk, Dean of the College of Education at Marquette University, thinks of his career in education as beginning on his very first day of kindergarten. From then on, his experiences as a public school student in elementary, junior high, and senior high school all helped shape who he has become as an educator. Bill is honored to work at outstanding institution where students not only develop intellectually, but socially, ethically, emotionally, and spiritually. And besides valuing Marquette’s astute balance of teaching, research and service excellence, he is deeply indebted to the university for enriching his own professional and spiritual growth.

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1 Comment

  1. Kevin says:

    Great to find your blog, Bill. Looking forward to great conversation at CHEC the next two days.

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