Ep. 44: Cool Schools with Seton Education Partners

April 10, 2018

In today’s Cool Schools episode of EdChoice Chats, Mike McShane chats with Stephanie Saroki de Garcia, co-founder of Seton Education Partners. Her job is to fill in gaps for Catholic schools across several cities by helping them improve school culture and implement successful blended learning programs. Seton also runs several secular charter schools with optional faith-based programming.

Mike McShane: Hello and welcome to another episode of EdChoice Chats. My name is Mike McShane and I’m director of national research at EdChoice. Today’s podcast is part of a new series we’re embarking upon called Cool Schools, wherein we will profile passionate educators around the country and the schools that they lead. This podcast series has two goals. The first is simply celebration.

Starting a new school or running a great existing school is hard work. Too often, it’s a thankless job so we want to celebrate people who are trying something new and different and kick the tires on their ventures to uncover lessons that they’ve learned and can share with other educators around the country.

The second goal is to try and stretch folks’ mind about what is possible in education. As educational choice supporters, we at EdChoice spend a healthy amount of our time trying to promote educational options that don’t exist yet. We push for states to pass laws that create the conditions for great new schools to open and scale, but many people struggle to wrap their minds around exactly what that might look like.

In this podcast, we’re going to highlight some of those potentialities. With quality school choices programs, innovative models like the ones we talk about here could be coming to a city near you.

You know, at the outside, I would like to say that we’re not going to try and use this podcast to adjudicate whether or not these are “good” or “bad” schools. We’re not going to examine their reading and math schools and ask them why their fourth graders aren’t up to snuff. We are going to ask about mistakes that they’ve made, lessons they’ve learned, advice that they would give, and related questions that should be helpful for anyone listening, even if you’re skeptical of their educational model or pedagogical strategy.

I’m always on the lookout for more cool schools to profile, so if you know of one of those in your neck of the woods, please let me know about it.

Today on the podcast, I am talking to Stephanie Saroki de Garcia. She runs Seton Education Partners. Seton is really interesting because it is a Catholic education organization but that both partners with what we might call traditional Catholic to provide blended learning, so having schools kind of rethink themselves as blending learning models, but also operates some charter schools with a faith component offered outside of school hours. We get into exactly what that looks like and that whole conversation. We also touch on, this is controversial as one might imagine, both from the public school community but also within the Catholic school community. We have some time to talk about that as well, which is great.

Just a little bit about Seton. It was launched in 2009. It serves right now about 3,300 students, again spread across both the Catholic schools that do the blended learning model as well as the charter schools, which are located in New York City.

Stephanie herself started by doing Teach For America in Oakland. She was a high school English teacher like myself, something that we share in common. After that, she was a Dean’s Fellow at Harvard Kennedy School. She worked in philanthropy. As she tells in her story, that’s what got her sparked to be interested in pursuing this model. Without further ado, Stephanie Saroki de Garcia of Seton Education Partners.

All right. I think it’s probably best if we start at the beginning. How did Seton Education Partners get started?

Stephanie Saroki de Garcia: Divine intervention. I was working at an organization called the Philanthropy Roundtable. I was asked to organize a meeting for philanthropists on who will save American’s urban Catholic schools. At the same time, my co founder, Scott Hamilton, was working on a manuscript of the same title. We put our heads together.

I had done Teach for America out of Berkeley undergrad and had spent all of my time thinking about how do we reform broken district schools, and how do we build new charter schools.

I’m Catholic, but I had not gone to Catholic schools. It was eye opening to me to learn that Catholic schools for 200 years had been the opportunity-equalizing force in America and also that they were shutting down on mass and that the former financial model that allowed Catholic schools to offer a close to free education for the poor no longer made sense in a climate with declining vocations.

I actually was having dinner with Scott and I was trying to convince him to do something about this crisis. He said, “Well, I’ll do it if you do it with me.”

Actually my older brother’s a priest and I called him that night and I said, “Anthony, I think I know what I’m supposed to do with my life. Call me back.” And Seton was born.

It was at the height of the recession, which as you might imagine, is a great time to start a brand new venture but really it was a call. It was a call to try to find a way forward for schools that had really treated children with great dignity and had really recognized that we’re more than just mind and body; we’re mind, body, and soul. That was really important.

Mike McShane: You highlight some of these and I know some of our podcast listeners are more familiar with Catholic education than others, but the problems that Seton is trying to solve. What were those issues in Catholic education that were causing schools to close or slowing their growth in the places that they are growing?

Stephanie Saroki de Garcia: Yeah. Everything but a hoard of locusts essentially. The biggest reason is that in the 60s, at the height of Catholic education in America, 95% of the staff were religious brothers, sisters, and priests. Fast forward to today and it’s fewer than 5%.

We were essentially funding Catholic education through, if you think about it, a school, 70% of its operating costs are your people costs. If you had religious brothers, sisters, and priests staffing schools, the church was essentially subsidizing those costs. Without those vocations, we can no longer offer a close-to-free Catholic education.

So if you’re near a city and you are not happy with the options that the district is providing, you have to pay for a Catholic education unless you’re in a state with tax credits and vouchers. That means that if you’re not in a state with tax credits and vouchers, you really can’t afford a Catholic education. That’s led to the decline of our schools.

Mike McShane: Now how many schools are you operating now?

Stephanie Saroki de Garcia: We have two models. We have a blended learning model, which we don’t operate those schools, we partner with those schools. They’re existing Catholic schools that have struggling, and they’ve typically been struggling financially and academically. We bring in a robust blended learning model into those schools, and we also spend time working on school culture. We have 13 of those schools across seven cities. Our other model, which is more controversial, is our charter school wrapped in faith.

In, let’s see, 2013, the archdiocese of New York made the decision to shut down 60 Catholic schools, and most of them were K–8 serving underserved kids. A bunch of people had asked the cardinal, “What about charter schools?” To his credit, he said, “You know what? I don’t know enough about them.” I was asked to brief the cardinal and his auxiliary bishops about possibly converting his schools into charter schools.

What I told him was that I didn’t think he should do that. I thought it was really hard to do effectively and that legally in New York, it was even more challenging, but that he should partner with an existing charter school that had a strong focus on character and pair it with a daily optional faith formation program for children. He was really taken with this idea and he said, “I think you should do this for us.”

We originally went out and talked to KIPP and others, but the archdiocese came back to us and said, “You know what? We want you to start this from scratch.” Given that my co-founder was the former co-founder of the KIPP Foundation, he said, “Okay. We can do this. I’ve done this before.” Definitely not easy to do, but with him on my side, we were actually able to launch a school called Brilla. It means shine in Spanish. We now have three campuses of Brilla in the South Bronx, and we are going to be launching five more campuses over the next five years.

Mike McShane: Now you mentioned that this was controversial so this is probably worth digging into for a moment. Why is this model controversial?

Stephanie Saroki de Garcia: We got really good legal counsel, and we wanted to make sure that whatever we did didn’t cross church-state boundaries. There are many people who are hypersensitive about church state boundaries. We are too. Many people don’t think that you should have this pairing of a secular school with an optional faith-based program.

It actually happens in many places across the country. You have charter schools that are leasing from former Catholic school institutions. The church is offering CCD on Saturdays or CCD sometime during the week after school. We just decided to do this in a more robust way. We offer El Camino, which is the name of the faith formation program four days a week for students.

Mike McShane: I, a couple years ago here for EdChoice, wrote a report where I … Again, as listeners of the podcast may know, I’m a Catholic school homer. I was both educated by and taught in Catholic schools.

We, Andrew Kelly, another research and I, wrote this report where we tracked a group of Catholic schools that had converted to charter schools. There was a group in Washington D.C. There was another in Florida. There was another here in Indianapolis, Indiana. I’ll tell you, this is what I’m interested in your response to, we wrote it just as sort of quasi disinterested social scientists and we used this phrase, “converting Catholic schools to charter schools.” We got some flack for that.

Stephanie Saroki de Garcia: I’m not surprised.

Mike McShane: A lot of folks in the Catholic school community said, “Listen. Catholic schools don’t convert to charter schools. They close, and a new school opens.”

Stephanie Saroki de Garcia: They reopen as charters, yes.

Mike McShane: I’m just wondering, I had this sort of answer as a social scientist, which is, look, we have to put names on things, and this is it. We put some language in there explaining it. I’d be interested how you would respond if someone said, “Listen. You’re not really converting Catholic schools. You are closing Catholic schools and opening charter schools.”

Stephanie: I think that’s the correct way to think about it. You really are closing the school and reopening as a charter. In our case, we actually did brand new start. The former Catholic school buildings that we occupy have been empty for four years. We started with kindergartners and first graders. We didn’t do conversions the way D.C. or Miami or Indianapolis did. Those were shut downs and start ups, but they started up as full schools unlike our model. We’ve just found that if you start with more than one grade level at a time, it’s really hard to do the kind of remediation you need to do for underserved kids, and it’s really hard to build strong school culture. For us, it was nonnegotiable to start from scratch.

Mike McShane: Yes. That’s an interesting sort of wrinkle in all of this because even when we were writing that report, we specifically looked at schools that close one year and reopened the next year.

Stephanie Saroki de Garcia: That’s different.

Mike McShane: Yeah. There’s lot of cases all around the country where charter schools have come into Catholic school buildings that have been sitting idle for three, four, five years, or sometimes even longer. I think that that’s an important thing. I know there’s a story happening now and probably over the course of the next couple months out of Memphis where you have the Jubilee schools that were forced to close.

Stephanie Saroki de Garcia: Yes.

Mike McShane: I know there will probably be lots of conversation about that moving forward. It’s interesting as in difficult.

Stephanie Saroki de Garcia: They are going to go charter.

Mike McShane: Yes. That’s what it looks like.

Stephanie Saroki de Garcia: Yeah. I think I mean I am praying for them. I hope that they get approved, and I think it’s very ambitious to try to start 10 charter schools at one time. I think they have their work cut out for them, but I’m praying that there’s going to continue to be an extra option for families who don’t find the right option at the district.

Mike McShane: Sure. Now I’m interested in maybe changing gears slightly and talking about your blended learning model. You have the charter schools wrapped in faith with the programs, but you also have 13 schools that you’ve partnered with, Catholic schools, to deliver a kind of blended learning model. Could you maybe talk through that from maybe from the students’ experience, what a typical day for them would be like or the types of services that you provide for those schools?

Stephanie Saroki de Garcia: Yeah, definitely. If you think of a traditional typical Catholic school classroom, you think of a teacher delivering instruction to a group of students. What we do is we actually break the group up into three and you have a third of the students in small group getting instruction from a teacher. You have a third of the students either working with a TA or doing independent work. Then you have a third of the students on computers using what is called adaptive software. That means the software changes based on what the kid puts in. This software has only been really good for the past decade. We just had not made the kind of advances before then in adaptive software in education. We had done so in other fields, but not in education.

What happens is, kids get this personalized instruction. If I go back to my Teach for America days, one of the hardest things to do was to figure out, how do you differentiate instruction for a group of kids that are coming to you at such varying levels? It’s the toughest job for a teacher. Technology really enables you to use a teacher in the best ways. We do that transformation. We do spend time on culture. Schools define their culture. They define what is their school on its best day and they think through how to implement a culture that will support that.

Mike McShane: Now the kind of all important question. In so far as, what y’all are doing is trying to make Catholic school more affordable. Is this able to bring down the cost of a Catholic education?

Stephanie Saroki de Garcia: It is if you do it the right way. I am one person who will say that there’s a lot of blended learning conversation that is not authentically blended learning or that is implemented really poorly. You can spend a lot of money and not really do much for kids. If you do it the right way, what you do is you increase class sizes. We go up to 28 plus in each classroom. If you increase class sizes without increasing your teaching staff, you’re going to reduce your per people operating expenses. Across our network, we’ve increased enrollment by 30%, which is unheard of in Catholic education.

Mike McShane: Absolutely. You emphasized doing it right or authentic blended learning. Are there, for maybe folks who would be sending their children to a school that calls itself blended learning or there are private school leaders who are folks that are coming to them and talking to them about blended learning, are there two or three differentiators that would you say this is quality blended learning or this is authentic blended learning, that these are the kind of markers that you would say that’s what makes it so?

Stephanie Saroki de Garcia: Yeah. I mean for us at the elementary level, we focus on K–8. The small group instruction is really important, so I’d want to see high quality small group instruction and then I want to make sure that the software is adaptive and is moving with kids because there’s a lot of bad software out there, but there’s also a lot of really good software out there. Those are the two things I’d look for.

Mike McShane: That’s great. Now I’m a policy guy myself. That’s been the majority of what my research has been on. I’d be interested, you operate across different contexts but also in different states and in different ways, are there policy barriers that make your life more difficult? Is there stuff that gets in your way? Are there things that vary from state to state that change what you’re able to do? Just kind of understanding your relationship to education policy at the local state federal level.

Stephanie Saroki de Garcia: Yeah. The biggest barrier is public funding for private schools. The places where we have found the most success, we’ve done four of these schools in California and we found success, but the places where we found more success are places with tax credits or vouchers. We’ve got four blended learning schools in Cincinnati, one in Milwaukee, one in Philadelphia, one in New Orleans. These are places that have really decided to empower parents to choose the best education for their own children. That, having public funding, really changed the game for families who can’t afford a Catholic education.

Mike McShane: Do you wonder, just sort of speculating here, that if we had more robust private school choice programs, that a lot of these questions around charter schools or charter school conversions would become a lot less salient?

Stephanie Saroki de Garcia: Yes. If we had better laws when it came to parental choice, we would be launching more Catholic schools as opposed to launching charter schools.

Mike McShane: Now a question for you. It may be different for the different models that you do, but how do you measure success? How do you know that what you’re doing is working?

Stephanie Saroki de Garcia: Yeah. All of our schools take the NWEA MAP. The reason we chose NWEA MAP is it’s a nationally normed test and what it does is it measures growth and it compares students across state lines. We wanted to be able to compare ourselves with KIPP. We saw KIPP as a leader in growth for underserved kids. Also, I was partnered with a KIPP guy. Every year, we get academic growth results on the NWEA MAP that are in parallel or better than KIPP. That’s one way that we measure results. We look at enrollment growth. That’s the second way we measure results. For El Camino, we look at baptisms and we also do surveys on church attendance and how often do you pray with your kids? We’ve seen just whole families change by the introduction of El Camino.

Mike McShane: Throughout this process, obviously you’ve had to overcome barriers to get there, I was wondering if you could maybe highlight one or two things that were if not, the hardest thing that you had to overcome in this process, but hurdles you all have had to overcome as you’ve started and grown?

Stephanie Saroki de Garcia: Yeah. I am a hardcore Catholic and I love the Catholic church. I have a brother who’s a priest. I would say our biggest hurdle has been working with the bureaucracy of the Catholic church. I don’t mean that doctrinally, I mean that temporally. The church functions as a bureaucracy and anytime you try to do something new or different, you’re met with resistance. I would say that’s been our single biggest hurdle.

Mike McShane: Are there specific issues that they sort of pump the brakes on of what y’all are trying to do?

Stephanie Saroki de Garcia: Well, certainly the charter school work is controversial because charter schools are seen as competitive for Catholic schools, rightly or wrongly. Then on the blended side, we insist that if there’s a change in school leadership, that we have a role in hiring and selecting a new leader. That’s just critically important because if you don’t have the right leader, it doesn’t matter what blended learning program you have, you’re not going to have results for kids. That is very different eyes in the faith of a model where a pastor is making all the decisions about leadership. We think there’s a vital role for pastors and it’s really as a spiritual leader of the school. Many pastors, my brother included, will say, “I’m not equipped to figure out who the right kind of school leader is for my school. I need some help from an external partner.”

Mike McShane: That’s an interesting question of teachers and leaders. This is something across the schools that I talk to on this podcast, a recurring conversation, is how do we great teachers? How do we get great leaders? I’d be curious, where do you find your teachers and leaders? Is there a particular training and professional development that you do with them to help get them up to speed? Is it the same kind of teacher preparation programs to get them all from? Just wondering what that pipeline looks like.

Stephanie Saroki de Garcia: Yeah. At our Catholic schools, we’re going into schools that already have teachers so we’re not really intervening there. At our charter schools, we are a big consumer of Teach for America. We think that they produce good teachers. We put all of our school leaders through the KIPP Fisher Fellowship Program. We think that they are one of the best trainers for new school founders in the country. We pay a fee to KIPP to have them train our leaders. We also have a program called Seton Teaching Fellows. Anyone who’s got a friend whose going to be graduating from college this year, you should really check this out. It is a year long commitment to serve in the South Bronx. They teach at the charter school and then they also teach in the faith formation program. We recruit from vibrantly Catholic universities to find those teachers. We give them coaches and they live in a faith community. We’ve decide to build our own pipeline.

Mike McShane: I want to close with two questions. One kind of looking forward, one looking backwards. The first would be, what does the next year or the next five years, the next 10 year hold for Seton Education Partners?

Stephanie Saroki de Garcia: Yeah. It’s a good time for Seton Education Partners. We are going to have 20 blended learning schools by 2020. We’ll be launching seven more blended learning schools over the next couple of years. Then we are going to be launching five campuses of Brilla over the next five years. We’re super excited about the growth. I’ve got a lot of money I’ve got to raise but I never had a better job.

Mike McShane: I imagine. I imagine it’s good problems to have. Then maybe my last question would look in the other direction, which is, if you could back to when all of this got started and give yourself some advice knowing what you know now, what advice would you give yourself, knowing that there are maybe some folks who are listening to this podcast who might be thinking about trying to start a school or get involved in some way?

Stephanie Saroki de Garcia: Yeah. Prayer matters. It makes a big difference. I would say for those of you who are people of faith, make sure that you put the work to prayer on a regular basis. I’d also say that there are going to be a lot of ups and downs and be patient with that. We’ve had plenty of failures over the past decade that we’ve been around. What’s really been important is persevering through those temporary setbacks.

Mike McShane: Could you maybe just, if you’re comfortable doing this, one or two, is this particular failure or mistake that you made that you learned from?

Stephanie Saroki de Garcia: Oh. I mean how much time do we have?

Mike McShane: I can say we got time.

Stephanie Saroki de Garcia: We almost launched a campus of Brilla in Indianapolis. We weren’t able to raise the money that we thought that we needed to raise to do the school well and we had to pull out. It was really brutal. I probably look at it as my biggest professional failure of my life. I think a couple things happened but probably the biggest thing that happened was that we were trying to do this school in both New York and in Indianapolis and we’d bitten off more than we could chew. We had to make a decision between the two sites. We had more support and we had raised more money in New York, the philanthropic capital of the world, but it was really hard to actually pull out after we had done so much work to try to get this school off the ground.

Mike McShane: Stephanie Saroki de Garcia, thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us today.

Stephanie Saroki de Garcia: Hey, it was my pleasure. Thank you.

Mike McShane: What a wonderful conversation. I think such an interesting, innovative, trying new things, being controversial, wrestling with the issues of the day, which is exactly what we’re trying to highlight here on this podcast. I will say that this question about Catholic schools and charter schools and how they work together or don’t work together or this sort of conversion or divestment or whatever you want to call it, will be an ongoing conversation, I would imagine, for the foreseeable future. Definitely watch us here at EdChoice writing about, talking about a lot of the thorny issues that are wrapped up in that. What an interesting school model. I think trying to introduce blended learning into Catholic schools, which are kind of noted for traditional form of instruction, is really fascinating and it’s such an interesting model to watch.

As always, subscribe to the podcast. Not just this podcast, all of the EdChoice podcasts. It’s a deal. Thrown in with this podcast are the other great podcasts that we offer. I think I said podcasts about 10 times in that sentence, but that’s how much I want you to subscribe. Also, make sure to sign up for our email list. You can get content sent directly to you. You can customize your profile so the information just is what you are interested in. As always, if you have cool schools that you would like me to profile, hit me up on Twitter. I’m @MQ_McShane. Take care. It was great talking with y’all.