She helped run the MTA and part of the federal court system in the northeast United States. Now Karen Greve Milton is bringing her executive skills to the Roman Catholic school system on Long Island in a bid to keep it afloat after years of closings.
Milton, a convert to Catholicism who sings in the adult choir at St. Agnes Cathedral in Rockville Centre, took over this week as chief executive of the Diocese of Rockville Centre's Department of Education.
Her mission: Stop the steady stream of Catholic schools closing on Long Island because of plummeting enrollment.
"I love a challenge," Milton said in an interview Thursday. "I’ve been a mission-driven person throughout my entire career. There is no greater mission than Catholic education and preserving Catholic education in the Diocese of Rockville Centre."
She added: "My role is to make the school system financially sustainable."
Brother Thomas Cleary, president of Chaminade High School, and head of the Morning Star Initiative, which aims to strengthen Catholic diocesan schools on Long Island, called Milton an "out of the box" choice for the job, her first in education.
But Cleary said her background is exactly what the diocese needs to help make its schools sustainable over the long term. Most recently, Milton, who has a law degree, served as chief of staff at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Office of the Inspector General.
She is taking on a situation challenged by the numbers: Catholic grammar schools run by the diocese on Long Island have plummeted from a high of 92 in the 1960s to 53 a couple of decades ago. In 2022, just 31 Catholic grammar schools remain open on the Island.
Between 2020 and 2021, the diocese closed five grammar schools — partly the result of declining enrollment worsened by the pandemic and families losing jobs, diocesan officials said.
The diocese also runs two high schools — St. John the Baptist in West Islip and Holy Trinity in Hicksville. A third, Bishop McGann-Mercy in Riverhead, closed in 2018, despite an infusion of millions of dollars in subsidies over the previous decade by the diocese.
But Cleary said there are some signs of hope: For the first time in 20 years, enrollment at Long Island Catholic grammar schools went up this year, showing a slight increase.
The financial side of the school system will be Milton’s focus, she said, since the diocese has three assistant superintendents of schools — along with principals — who will delve into the details of curriculum planning and the like.
"Our principals are so competent in their educational field," Cleary said. "What we needed was someone who could really focus on institutional transformation, someone with fresh eyes and ears."
Milton will also work closely with Cleary and the Morning Star Initiative. Cleary’s religious order, the Marianist Brothers, has gained a reputation for establishing the "gold standard" for Catholic education on Long Island. When the diocese announced a year ago that it was recruiting the brothers to help "revitalize" Long Island Catholic schools Barres talked their "reputation for academic excellence."
Milton hopes to keep all schools open but said she does not yet have a "silver bullet" solution on how to do it. She needs time to study the situation first, she said.
Catholic schools "have been beacons throughout this whole pandemic," she said, starting online live instruction soon after the shut down of in-person instruction at schools in March 2020, and then reopening for full in-person instruction that fall.
Milton has 40 years of public service experience with New York City, New York State and the federal judiciary.
Before the MTA, she served as circuit executive, or chief operating officer, of the Second Circuit — thirteen federal courts encompassing New York, Connecticut and Vermont.
Early in her career after she finished law school, she worked at the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office.
Milton, who declined to give her age, was raised a Lutheran and attended a Lutheran parochial school in New Jersey from kindergarten through 8th grade. As an adult, she eventually moved to Huntington and attended St. Patrick’s Catholic Church. She converted to Catholicism partly because of her late husband, who was a product of a Catholic grammar school and a devout Catholic, she said.
The mission: saving Catholic schools
- Karen Greve Milton, an executive with decades of experience, is now the Diocese of Rockville Centre's Department of Education CEO.
- She says her mission is to reverse the trend of Catholic grammar schools closing.
- Milton previously helped run the MTA, and part of the federal court system in the northeast United States.
- The number of Catholic grammar schools on Long Island has dropped from a peak of 92 in the 1960s to 31 in 2022.