Straight Up Conversation: Seton Education Partners’ Stephanie Saroki de García

Stephanie Saroki de García is co-founder and managing director of Seton Education Partners, which supports blended learning in 14 urban Roman Catholic schools and operates three virtue-based charter schools in the South Bronx. Previously, Stephanie launched and directed the Philanthropy Roundtable’s K-12 education programs for five years, and she also co-authored the book Saving America’s Urban Catholic Schools: A Guide for Donors. I recently had the chance to talk with Stephanie about why blended learning matters and how to revitalize urban Catholic education. Here’s what she had to say.

Rick Hess: So Stephanie, what is Seton?

Stephanie Saroki de García: Seton Education Partners is an organization I co-founded with KIPP pioneer Scott Hamilton—no, not the figure skater—in 2009. We seek to find innovative ways to achieve the goals of Catholic education for our most vulnerable children. Our signature initiative brings robust blended learning to now 14 Catholic schools in nine cities across the nation—serving over 4,100 primarily underserved Latino and African-American children. Our second initiative launches and manages secular, virtues-based charter schools that offer optional, privately-funded Catholic after-school programs. Our charter schools are based in the South Bronx, serving nearly 800 children in grades K-6 across three campuses.

RH: What prompted you to launch Seton?

SSG: The short version: I felt called. The long version: I am one of six children born to an immigrant Iraqi Catholic family. Our parents taught us that, while we are on this earth, we are called to use the gifts God gave us to serve others. That message is why I joined Teach For America [TFA] 20 years ago and what motivates my work today. My time in TFA teaching English in the second toughest high school in Oakland, California, changed me. Rather than going to law school as I had planned, my experience led me to Harvard’s Kennedy School, and ultimately to the Philanthropy Roundtable. There I met Seton’s co-founder, Scott Hamilton. My work at the Roundtable always felt meaningful and high-impact—so I wasn’t looking to leave—but when Michelle Rhee became chancellor of D.C. public schools, I thought I might be able to help her. When I asked my older brother for advice, he said something that stayed with me: “Stephanie, if you can’t help children to know God, you’ll only ever get so far with them.” Not long after that conversation, Scott Hamilton left KIPP, and providentially, we both became interested in urban Catholic schooling in America. One night at dinner, I tried to convince Scott to apply his strategic brilliance—especially what he had learned helping to grow KIPP and shape the national charter school movement—to finding a new way forward for urban Catholic education. He said, “I will, but only if you’ll join me.” And my heart leaped. I was 32 years old at the time, and I called my brother that night and left him a message: “I know what God wants me to do with my life. Call me back.”

RH: Catholic education has long been a passion of yours. In your experience, what do you think Catholic schools can uniquely teach district and charter schools?

SSG: Catholic schools understand—better than any other kind of school—what it truly means to be human.

RH: What do you mean by that?

SSG: For 200 years, Catholic schools were the opportunity-equalizing force in America for underserved children—Catholic and non-Catholic alike. You could even say the original Teach For America was an army of nuns who founded and built and taught in schools that gave disadvantaged children—especially new immigrants—a decent shot at success. And they accomplished this by respecting the inherent dignity of every child—holding the children they served to high academic expectations, providing them a strong foundation in core subjects, and, vitally, nurturing in them a deep sense of something greater than themselves. Catholic schools educate the whole child—mind, body, and soul. Such models are increasingly rare, however, and will become extinct if we aren’t careful.

RH: One of the main things Seton does is help facilitate blended learning. For those who may not know, could you explain what that is?

SSG: Blended learning combines a traditional, brick-and-mortar educational experience—imagine one person teaching several children—with online learning that allows a child to move at his or her own pace. It can take many, many shapes. Blended learning is not the same as what some would call “technology-rich” instruction. It goes beyond 1-to-1 computers and high-tech gadgets. Instead, blended learning leverages the internet to provide students a personalized learning experience. This means increased student control over the path and/or pace of learning. At Seton’s schools, we use a rotational blended learning model—and to best understand it, you want to see it in action.

RH: And why would Catholic schools, in particular, want to implement blended learning?

SSG: When blended learning is done well—it is magic—and can truly give each child what he or she needs. Here’s an example: At the beginning of 8th grade, when Seton first partnered with his Catholic school, Jeremy, a child with a complicated IEP, was reading at a 4th grade level. At 6′ 2,” Jeremy was the star of the basketball team. He was a hard worker and knew how to persevere—but his teachers, prior to blended learning, had no idea how to help him because he was so far behind his peers. Using adaptive software targeted to his unique needs, Jeremy grew over three grade levels in reading by the end of the year. How did he respond to learning that he had grown faster than any other student in his class? He fell to the floor crying. Jeremy explained, “No one has ever told me that I can be good at school. People only think that I can be good at basketball.” Jeremy is now a senior in high school and is in advanced reading classes. I could share many, many more stories like Jeremy’s.

RH: Now, I know of several public schools that have implemented blended learning without the help of a third-party. Is there any reason urban Catholic schools might need more assistance?

SSG: You hit on a key point here, Rick. Unfortunately, high-poverty Catholic schools are at a severe disadvantage when it comes to harnessing the potential of blended learning. Charter networks like KIPP, Aspire, IDEA, and Rocketship have national and regional teams dedicated to infrastructure, content, software price negotiation, professional development, and data analysis. There is no equivalent for this in the Catholic school space; the typical Catholic school serving a high-poverty student demographic is incredibly lean staffwise—we’re talking one principal, one secretary, and a teacher in each classroom. And Archdiocesan education offices are often stretched thin. There is no comparison between the administrative support in the charter schools Seton operates in N.Y.C., which are bringing in over $18,000 per child, and our urban Catholic schools, which are bringing in about $3,000 to $5,000 per child. Blended learning doesn’t mean just buying every child an iPad and you’re done. In fact, I’ve told philanthropists to run away from any such plan. At Seton, we have an 80-page playbook—and yes, if you want it, e-mail me at, and I’ll share it. We very thoughtfully and systematically implement adaptive software to transform an entire school in one year. We hire a full-time, on-site staff person to coach teachers and principals through the process. Once our partner schools have made the full transformation, we help them manage content, negotiations, and professional development from afar.

RH: So what do the results look like?

SSG: They’re strong—and your readers can find them on our website. Since Seton’s co-founder was a KIPP pioneer, and because KIPP publishes its NWEA MAP growth results, our target has always been to match or beat KIPP in the percent of students meeting their year-end growth targets in both English Language Arts [ELA] and math. The good news: We’ve done this every year. We, of course, look at other metrics—especially enrollment. Across our network of 14 Catholic schools, we’ve increased enrollment by a whopping 30 percent. That’s unthinkable in a sector where the norm is decline. This demonstrates what’s possible when you combine high quality, whole-child education with grassroots recruitment and marketing. Even in cities without tax credits and vouchers—we’ve seen enrollment jump up 20 percent.

RH: A second component to your work, which you alluded to earlier, involves operating charter schools that offer Catholic after-school programming. How does that work, and what prompted you to start that program?

SSG: Let’s start with the why. In 2011, the Archdiocese of New York made the heartbreaking decision to close almost 60 schools due to declining enrollment and financial instability—the very same trouble that’s forced similar decisions in so many other cities. Most of the shuttered New York schools served largely low-income and minority children in grades K-8. They provided these boys and girls a safe haven and a holistic education that nurtured their heads, hearts, and spirits. In response to these closings, and at the request of Cardinal Dolan, who did not want to abandon his most underserved communities, Seton set out to pioneer a new charter school of virtue—Brilla. Our hope was that, when paired with a vibrant after-school faith-formation program—one that is voluntary for children and that does not use government funds—Brilla would achieve the goals of Catholic education for the underserved and would do so in a financially sustainable way that complies with charter school laws in both word and spirit. Today at Brilla—three campuses strong serving nearly 800 children in grades K-6—our scholars get an outstanding academic education paired with robust character formation.

RH: And what kind of outcomes have you seen at these schools?

SSG: We outperform the district, N.Y.C., and New York state in both English Language Arts and math on the state proficiency tests. When you look at our English-language learners and special education subgroups, they do the same. My favorite statistic, however, is when we compare Brilla to other public district and charter schools serving a similar student demographic—high special education, high English-language learner, and high poverty. Under such a comparison, Brilla ranks fourth in the entire state in percentage of students who achieved proficiency on the state math test, and 10th in ELA. In terms of growth, the percent of Brilla students achieving over a year of growth on the NWEA MAP is 77 in reading and 78 in math—far outpacing the national average of 50 percent. In addition to academics, we’re especially proud that we’ve had 100 percent attendance at parent-teacher conferences, and 95 percent of our parents are satisfied or highly satisfied with their school. Meanwhile, since our founding, we’ve had zero expulsions and our suspension rate is very, very low. And we’re working on a tool to try to measure our character outcomes, because our character results are just as important, if not more important, than our academic ones. To be honest, we aren’t sure that such a tool can work and we want to be very careful about how we do this, but we’re serious about character and our conviction that “Results Matter.”

RH: I imagine the partnership with the Church could provoke pushback in some corners. How has that played out?

SSG: In the communities we serve—there’s been no pushback. Brilla is located in one of the nation’s most underserved congressional districts—Mott Haven in the South Bronx. The truth is, we need more schools of virtue, and not just of the Catholic variety. We need more schools that are not only academically strong but that also give kids a solid moral foundation that aligns with their families’ traditions and values. And the thing is, if you ask black and Latino families, by and large, they want to see more of these schools, too.

RH: How do you fund this work? Does the Church pay for most of this, or are you dependent on other philanthropists?

SSG: The Church subsidizes our voluntary faith-formation program, but we raise start-up dollars from philanthropists to launch each of our charter schools—funding for feasibility studies; building renovations; school leader recruitment, selection and training; staffing up our charter management organization; and many other things we need to start our new charters well. One of Seton’s four founding principles is sustainability—so all our charter schools are completely sustainable on public dollars by Year 4 of operations. We run a really lean organization and we are proud of that. But because we start small and grow a grade level at a time, our charter schools run at a deficit in the early years.

RH: In my experience, many education reform funders are leery about private schools and about the role of religion when it comes to schooling. Have you noticed anything like that?

SSG: Are you trying to get me in trouble? I already get in enough trouble all by myself! Yes, some funders, especially larger foundations, can be wary of funding anything that has to do with faith—and sometimes, that wariness is especially strong when it comes to the Catholic Church. That’s not been our experience universally, but it has been our experience in specific instances. We do, however, have a lot of high net worth individuals who “made it” in America because of a Catholic school and who want to find a new way forward for achieving the academic, character, and—for families who choose it—faith goals of Catholic education. Having spent five years in philanthropy, I think it’s OK for funders to specialize—decide what they want to achieve and how they’re going to get the results they want with their giving.

RH: What’s next for you all?

SG: We’re looking to expand. We’re actually working closely with the Charter School Growth Fund on a robust expansion plan for our charter network. In N.Y.C., we plan to go from three campuses to eight or possibly nine campuses by 2026—and will be serving well over 3,000 children at capacity. With our Catholic schools, our goal is to show that in choice states, such schools can thrive given the right set of priorities, guidance, and governance. In order to do that, we are working to create local networks of Catholic school innovation in key locations to show what is possible. And we’re actively exploring whether we want to start a network of independent Seton Catholic academies in states with good public school choice programs—Ohio, right now, being the top contender.

— Frederick Hess

Frederick Hess is director of education policy studies at AEI and an executive editor at Education Next.

This post originally appeared in Rick Hess Straight Up.

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