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Transforming Catholic Education in Milwaukee

By Guest Blogger — November 13, 2017 5 min read
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This week, our guest blogger is Dr. Bill Hughes, the Chief Academic Officer for Seton Catholic Schools in Milwaukee. Bill has been engaged in K-12 education policy and leadership for over thirty years and is the former superintendent of Greendale School District in the Milwaukee suburbs.

A renaissance is underway in Catholic schools across the country. Coalitions of foundations, funders, educators, and individuals are searching for contemporary methods to revive Catholic education with new models built around high achievement expectations. Seton Catholic Schools is proud to be among these innovative leaders pursuing excellence for our students.

A Proud History and Challenging Future in Milwaukee

For well over a century, Catholic parishes and schools have been serving the neighborhoods of Milwaukee. Built on the foundation of excellence in Catholic education, our parish schools have deep roots and rich histories in the community. Initially, Milwaukee Catholic schools served immigrant families; today, our schools serve mostly high poverty neighborhoods in the city, with more than 80% of our student population considered economically disadvantaged.

The harsh realities of the neighborhoods we serve extend into the schools. The major challenges we face are familiar to everyone working in urban education.

In 2015, Most Reverend Jerome E. Listecki, Archbishop of Milwaukee, and Dr. Kathleen Cepelka, Superintendent of Schools for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, assembled a task force of academic, community and business leaders to address the needs of Milwaukee Catholic schools. The task force was encouraged to be bold and innovative to address the following challenges:

  • Improving reading and math proficiency
  • Providing services to address student trauma
  • Building a pipeline of teachers and a career path within Catholic education
  • Supporting pastors taxed by administrative and management responsibilities
  • Addressing aging school facilities

From this task force came the recommendation to create Seton Catholic Schools, a collaborative network of Milwaukee Archdiocesan K-8 schools. Our work was not clearly defined, nor was it easy, but it was necessary. Compelled by our mission—to build a transformational educational system committed to overcoming social and academic challenges, empowering students, families and educators to attain their God-given potential—we began our work to reinvigorate Catholic education in the city.

In just one year, Seton has grown from an idea to a major initiative transforming education in Milwaukee. There are currently 12 schools within the Seton Catholic Schools network, employing more than 400 leaders, teachers, and staff and serving over 3,000 students throughout Milwaukee.

Our aspiration is simple: All eighth graders are academically and spiritually prepared for high school and beyond.

Strategies for Success

Our innovative governance model is collaborative at heart, embracing the parish partnership while bringing management of academics, faith programming, financials, and employment under the Seton umbrella.

Our innovative model follows a few key strategies:

  • Implement proven instructional practices and curriculum in all classrooms
  • Support and develop teachers and leaders with high-quality coaching and professional development
  • Recommit to the spiritual formation for our faculty, staff, and students
  • Focus the role of the principal as the academic and spiritual leader of the school
  • Create financial efficiencies to reinvest in instructional resources for the classroom

Our Educational Model

The Seton Educational Model is proven, drawing on lessons from high-performing urban and suburban schools around the United States. Our schools share a common instructional framework to ensure we are teaching all students effectively. Our data-driven approach allows us to adjust curriculum by school and classroom, prepare and coach teachers, provide daily enrichment activities to aid students in need of academic support, and grant high-performers the ability to continue growing toward their full God-given potential.

Updated teacher and principal performance management systems that are linked to student growth, faith formation along with engagement of their students and families, further support this framework.

Promising Results in Just One Year

After just one year, Seton has already demonstrated promising results for students, families, and educators.

The 2017 Forward Exam demonstrated positive trends in reading and math growth across schools. In fact, Seton students are growing faster in reading and math than students in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program and Milwaukee Public Schools, and the state report card, after one year, is favorable.

  • The number of classrooms that met accelerated reading and math growth goals between winter and spring doubled.
  • More than half of classrooms grew at least one year in reading.
  • Nearly half of classrooms grew at least one year in math.

Seton Catholic Schools is committed to transparency and full accountability. All students at Seton Catholic Schools take the Wisconsin Forward Exam, including tuition-paying students—which is not required by state law. Our schools now have the same state report cards as public and charter schools, allowing for comparisons with other neighborhood schools. We expect Seton Catholic Schools to be assessed by parents and the public on our ability to increase educational outcomes for all students who walk through our doors.

We know that accountability and transparency linked to leadership and development of educators results in highly successful schools.


Seton Catholic Schools is the solution to the educational and community challenges affecting our neighborhoods. Our network will eventually include 26 schools and serve more than 8,000 students across the city of Milwaukee. The scope of our network and the strong ties to neighborhood parishes and schools present us with a unique opportunity to make a significant impact in the community.

In 2016, Alan Borsuk, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel education columnist, named Seton Catholic Schools the education organization of the year. We know we have much work to do, and we are committed to our important work.

By transforming these schools, Seton not only improves student academic performance, but the network schools become cornerstones for addressing neighborhood social issues, strengthening families, and transforming students’ lives resulting in safe, engaged communities. We are driven to succeed because failure isn’t an option anymore in Milwaukee. As you can see, we’ve only just begun to transform Catholic education in Milwaukee.

Dr. Bill Hughes

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.