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Catholic Education in the 2020’s

To Teach as Jesus Did:

Catholic Education in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee

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“Catholic Education in the 2020’s”

As we approach Catholic Schools Week 2019 and, soon, the beginning of the third decade of the 21st century, I’ve been asked to consider what Catholic education might look like and require in the decade that lies ahead.   Since I’m completing five decades of work in Catholic schools this year, I’m grateful to bring some treasured personal history to my perspective. 


Catholic schools of the future will continue to need leaders who are focused and studied in their professionalism, not unduly influenced by educational trends or initiatives “du jour.”  These leaders must be imaginative in their thinking, reflective in their analysis of increasingly complex situations, courageous in their decision-making, and committed to integrating faith-based teachings and values into every aspect of school life.  This will demand that leaders are personally grounded in the Gospel, on their way toward “praying without ceasing,” and capable of moving toward long-term goals without sacrificing short-term needs.


Catholic schools of the future will implement quality programming that urges and enables all students to maximize their growth academically, spiritually, emotionally, and socially.  School populations will—and should—look different than they have in the past.   This shift has been occurring over the past two decades and is certain to continue into the 2020’s and beyond.  For example, in 2000, the non-Caucasian enrollment in the Catholic schools of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee comprised 16.2% of the total enrollment; in 2010, it was 33.5%, and for the 2018 – 2019 school year, it is 47.1%.   Not only will our schools “look” different in the future; they will increasingly develop and provide new opportunities for students and their families to meaningfully experience the integration of faith with culture which is the essence of a Catholic school.  

Catholic schools of the future must maintain and advance the value of the liberal arts.  As an educator who has deeply valued my own background in literature, drama, and writing, I’m concerned that an overreliance and single-focused emphasis on technology will lead to a weakening of the personal and scholarly communication skills at which Catholic school students in the past have been taught to excel.  During the past week, I had the opportunity to visit one of our urban schools and speak with an art teacher who’s been doing the work she loves with grade school children for over 20 years.  She passionately described the importance of teaching students to value their “outbreath.”  I’d not heard that term before, but it made sense after I asked her to explain.  “Children ‘take in’ so much,” she said.   “They’re almost constantly placed in situations where they receive what someone else has produced.”  Indeed, it seems to me, not only art--but writing, speaking, and other forms of constructive self-expression--challenge us to “breath out” and “produce” on our own, balancing the influence that technology and other inputs may have over our imaginations, desires, and habits.  Catholic schools have had a long history of teaching students to value and be strong in writing and speaking, in appreciation for literature, music, languages, and the arts, and in appreciating diverse cultures.  These focal areas must remain solid in the future.


In the decades ahead, Catholic schools will continue to need parish and school communities willing to proactively consider and plan for new models of Catholic education to ensure its long-term accessibility, affordability, and sustainability.  Much progress has already been made toward the accomplishment of this vision, with networks in place like Seton Catholic Schools in Milwaukee, Siena Catholic Schools in Racine, and Waukesha Catholic School System, St. Mary’s Springs Academy in Fond du Lac, and the new Burlington Catholic School.   Exploratory discussions toward greater collaboration have also taken place on the North Shore, in the Lake Country, and in Washington County.   There may well be fewer Catholic schools in the future, but those that exist should have physical resources appropriate for their populations and programming, including facilities, technologies, and infrastructures that support the development of 21st century learning environments.


Catholic schools of the future will need to explore and seriously consider new financial and funding models in order to provide just compensation to personnel, scholarship assistance to students, and endowments large enough to ensure their future sustainability.   The current single-parish / single-school model for Catholic education is placing an increasingly untenable strain on the finances of most parishes and families.  New funding models need to be explored and developed.


Finally, Catholic schools of the future will need to continue to provide for the faith formation of faculty and staff.   We will need teachers for tomorrow, like those of the present and the past, who know the faith, are on fire with love for their calling as Catholic educators, and who transform their classrooms and their schools with their faith, energy, and unparalleled dedication.  These servants of God will continue to build, into the second quarter of the 21st century, schools which, like those of 175 years ago, are exemplars of hospitality to all:  the weak, the stranger, the suffering, the poor, and everyone who hungers to be fed.


Kathleen A. Cepelka, Ph.D.
Superintendent of Catholic Schools

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