An assignment designed to change Milwaukee’s Catholic Schools

By Alan Borsuk, senior fellow in law and public policy, Marquette Law School

The College of Education’s influence has never been more evident than now, when a revolution is under way to strengthen Milwaukee’s Catholic schools.

Kathleen Cepelka often poses questions that are very simple and very complicated at the same time. Consider this one: “We’re pursuing the ideal here. But why pursue anything else?” Or this 
one: “If we don’t do something now, when will we do it?” Or a third one: “And if not this, what?”

Cepelka is superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, and all three of the questions underlie a major new effort called Seton Catholic Schools that aims to improve the success of 26 Catholic elementary schools in Milwaukee that serve large numbers of low-income students. The questions also underlie Cepelka’s role in working with the other 87 elementary schools and high schools in the 10-county Milwaukee Archdiocese.

Several decades into her career, Cepelka is both skilled and smart as an education leader and ambitiously idealistic in pursuit of better futures for children. “From my perspective, it’s about justice,” she says. Kids and families should get what they need “to allow them to be and do their best.”

Cepelka says Marquette University has played a big role in developing her professionalism and her idealism. That makes her a prime example of something broader to say about Marquette: From its top leadership to its newest students, the university is playing a big role in the challenging work of helping students in the city. That includes students in the public schools, as well as Catholic schools.


At the top, there’s President Michael Lovell, one of the co-chairs of Milwaukee Succeeds, an everyone-at-the-table effort of education, business and civic leaders to improve the lives of the city’s children.

There’s Dr. Bill Henk, dean of the College of Education, who has played key roles in launching collaborative efforts such as the Greater Milwaukee Catholic Education Consortium and in advocating for positive developments such as the opening in 2015 of Milwaukee’s first Cristo Rey Jesuit High School, part of a growing network nationwide of successful Catholic urban schools.

There’s Dr. Thomas Kiely, director of Marquette’s Catholic Leadership Institute, which works with school leaders across the archdiocese and beyond, helping them improve their education programs and work in faith formation for students.

There’s Kris Rappe, retired We Energies Corp. chief administrative officer and a longtime member of the Marquette Board of Trustees, who led the archdiocese task force that put forward the Seton Schools plan and who heads the recently launched Seton Board of Directors.

There’s the College of Education itself. A large portion of the principals at Catholic schools in the Milwaukee area earned degrees or received advanced training at Marquette. And three-quarters — and, in some semesters, many more than three-quarters — of field placements for students majoring in education are in schools in the city of Milwaukee.

And there’s the 250 or so Marquette students who do service learning each semester in schools in the city. In addition, many more volunteer in settings such as Boys & Girls Clubs, where they help, for instance, in tutoring students in reading.

Consider Cynthia Anaya, a junior from Milwaukee who is majoring in Spanish for the health professions and minoring in business administration. She tutored students at Nativity Jesuit Academy on the south side as part of her service learning commitment. “Marquette students care, they want to help, and, besides being a requirement, students get attached to the sites and the people,” she says. “It’s a heart-warming experience to see how we are able to help people — and possibly help them decide what they want to do for their future.”

Brian Huback, a freshman from Chicago, has helped 4th- and 5th-grade students at St. Anthony Catholic School on the south side with their homework. “Children’s minds are always running,” he says. One thing he learned was “the care Marquette has, not only for its students but for Milwaukee students in general.”

The launch of Seton Catholic Schools is one important place to see the connection between Marquette, its alumni and the work of addressing Milwaukee’s education needs.


In the big picture, Catholic education leaders in Milwaukee, starting with Archbishop Jerome Listecki and Cepelka, realized things needed to be done to improve the overall record of Catholic elementary schools. “We had a lot of schools languishing,” is how Kiely puts it.

Thanks to Milwaukee’s first-in-the-nation private school voucher program, there were not Catholic school closures in Milwaukee in the last couple decades to the extent that occurred in other urban centers. Overall enrollment in Milwaukee Archdiocese schools has been generally stable in the last several years. In the city of Milwaukee thousands of parents have taken advantage of the school choice program, as it is often called, to send their children to private schools with public money, rather than tuition, paying for each child.

“Choice kept the schools open,” Kiely says. “Now we want to make them better.”

What does that mean? As Cepelka outlines it, Seton Schools will take a strikingly different approach. Business and financial matters largely will be handled by the Seton administration and not individual schools. Hiring, placement and training of school principals and teachers will be handled generally by Seton, and not each school. Seton is also undertaking a fundraising campaign, both to pay for the initiative itself and to provide more to schools. And leaders hope that the fundraising will combine with increased enrollment to provide resources for putting more staff in schools, including more aides to help teachers in classrooms.


More will be expected from staff and students, more will be done to enable them to meet such expectations — those are core elements of the efforts’ mission. Each school will retain its own identity, Cepelka emphasizes, and ties between schools and parishes will continue. But when fully implemented the 26 schools will operate more like a school system than the loose association that has been the reality for many years.

Plans call for nine schools to be involved directly in the 2016–17 school year and all 26 elementary schools to be involved by 2018–19. The initiative has its own administrative leaders, including a chief academic officer, William Hughes, former superintendent of Greendale schools. Cepelka, who had central roles in developing and launching the initiative, is Archbishop Listecki’s representative on the Seton Board.

Cepelka says she is troubled that, nationwide, disadvantaged students often aren’t stretched intellectually in school as much as they should be and are not given what they will need to get ahead in life. “Seton is about giving to these families and their children the best we have,” she says.

Cepelka has been giving children the best she has since she was a child herself. When she was around seven, she would gather kids from her neighborhood and teach 
them reading.

“I’m a West Allis girl,” she says. She grew up in the shadows of the Allis–Chalmers factory that dominated the Milwaukee suburb then. She describes her family as working class; her father was a shoe salesman.

As a member of a religious community, Cepelka taught in a Catholic middle school in Fond du Lac, Wis., for four years before being sent to Yonkers, N.Y., to teach at a high school. You might not guess it from her generally reserved demeanor, but she oversaw 35 student theatre productions in that period, including seven musicals. She also coached cheerleading and basketball.

She returned to Fond du Lac as an elementary school principal. After a few years, she decided to expand her capabilities and enrolled in Marquette as a graduate student. “I really was changed by Marquette,” Cepelka says.

Her course work was only part of that. She says she learned a lot about the dimensions relationships can and should have and about collegiality — in other words, about Ignatian life, culture and spirit. “It was a transformational period in my life,” Cepelka says.

She received a doctorate of education policy and leadership in 1992, with a minor in business administration. And she says she left with stronger footing for serving the church and its schools.

Cepelka was principal of Catholic Memorial High School in Waukesha for eight years before returning to Marquette to become associate dean of the College of Education. She praises Dean Henk. “He challenged me in ways he’ll never know,” she says. “His standards are 
so high.”

After several years with the College of Education, she got a phone call from Jerry Topczewski, chief of staff for Archbishop Listecki. The archbishop wanted to meet with her. She became superintendent of the 113 schools in the archdiocese in 2010. She continues to teach one course a year at Marquette, a semester class on education leadership.

What needs to be done is so simple. And it’s so complex. It would be of such value on every level for more Milwaukee children to achieve more success in school. It’s so hard to achieve that. At a point in her career where many would be stepping away from such undertakings, Cepelka relishes what she is doing with undiminished senses of idealism and commitment. “It’s a daily challenge,” she says. “I love what I’m doing.”


  1. To provide a broader view of effective Catholic education in the Archdiocese, this piece could have/should have acknowledged the long time presence and success of the Messmer Schools. In any followup article, please give us a sense of the curriculum developed for the 113 schools. I hope it includes a healthy amount of American history with focus on our nation’s founding principles and the basis for those principles.

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