In 2008, when Stephanie Saroki de García and Scott Hamilton were planning to launch Seton Education Partners, Aaron Brenner offered his perspective as a school leader, a founder of national and international organizations, and a Catholic. He helped the two consider the model for the Brilla Public Charter Schools, which Seton would open in 2013 in New York’s South Bronx. The expanding network of schools leverages charter school funds and, at the same time, provides optional after-school Catholic faith formation through its El Camino program.
“I was very excited to see them give birth to this new organization,” Brenner says. “I thought it would be on the cutting edge of bringing together Catholic education with public school funding in an innovative way.”
Taking risks is never easy. But Emily Gilbride, Senior Manager of Blended Learning for Seton Education Partners, has found that it becomes easier if you believe in yourself and your abilities. It is easier still, she says, if you have faith that your God will guide you through any trials and tribulations along the way.
“I have cerebral palsy,” she says. “My parents were told when I was born that I was never going to walk. When I was two and a half, my grandmother prayed the rosary over my legs and I walked the next morning.”
Risk and hardship, meet faith.
If you were presented with the phrase “Catholic school” in a word association exercise, it is unlikely you would respond with the word “innovation.” Jim Rigg, superintendent of Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Chicago, thinks it’s time for that to change.
“In order for Catholic schools, especially those in urban areas, to continue the ministry of the church, we have to innovate,” says Rigg. “We have a well-deserved reputation for excellence in our schools, but at the same time it’s clear that innovation is necessary.”
That necessity has been driven by a well-documented downturn in the state of affairs for urban Catholic schools across the United States. In the last two decades and despite a long history of providing an academically rigorous education to their students, Catholic schools have closed at an unprecedented rate. For many years, those closures could be traced to an operational business problem. The loss of free labor provided by the religious women and men who used to staff the schools in the past has increased the cost of tuition to the point that students, from mostly low-income and immigrant families, could no longer afford to attend them. With fewer students and lower revenues, schools closed and consolidated after adjusting to the new financial realities.
This April, 25 disciples in the El Camino programs at Brilla College Prep, Brilla Middle School, and Brilla Veritas will receive the Sacraments of Initiation, joining the more than 70 students who have already received their Sacraments.
El Camino, which means “the way,” aims to help underserved children shine through Catholic faith formation, character development, and homework support through a fun and enriching after-school program. It runs each school day from the end of school to 5:30 pm.
When Scott Hamilton and Stephanie Saroki de García, the founders of Seton Education Partners, launched what would become El Camino, they imagined the program would have broader impact than on the students alone.
Sarah (Barnett) Meagher, a teacher at Brilla College Prep, knew she wanted to serve when she finished college. She leaned on her previous service experiences and her studies of Catholic philosophy to help her discern her next steps. When a mentor at Creighton University recommended applying to Seton Teaching Fellows, she jumped at the chance. Meagher’s volunteer experiences prepared her to make immediate contributions to the program. They also prepared her for something else: the challenges of making lasting change in a community that lacks the resources it needs to thrive.