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From Good to Great
June 2005
Posted in Soundings

From time to time, I’ll look up from a meeting and see a group of very serious looking visitors heading to their own meeting in Catholic Center. There is nothing casual about them. They even carry their notebooks like people on a mission.

As a matter of fact, they are. They are Catholic school teachers meeting to map curriculum. For example, first-grade teachers from schools in a given area of the diocese will spend a few hours analyzing what they are teaching in math, and when and how they are doing so. Teachers in other grade levels will do the same thing for all academic subjects such as language arts, social studies, and science. Soon they’ll be doing this for the religion curriculum.

Also in the offing is a professional development workshop for our high school teachers called “Differentiation of Instruction,” a way of teaching that responds better to the learning needs of individual students.

Catholic school elementary and secondary teachers are not only discussing common problems but also discovering best practices. In a word, they are challenging themselves to become even better teachers. And if you think the Catholic school teachers look serious, you should see the principals. Groups of principals visit the Catholic Center much more frequently than ever. They certainly don’t come for the food! They are coming to strengthen their already impressive leadership skills with the assistance of Joseph Mulcahy, formerly of Xerox, and Maryann Walsh, an experienced educational leader. They are sharing their problems and challenges and developing leadership skills in the areas of instruction and supervision.

Of course, I don’t see the half of it. For while these very single-hearted visitors grace the Catholic Center with their presence from time to time, much more of this work is being accomplished at other locations in the diocese.

And that’s not all. Dr. Margaret Dames, our superintendent of Catholic schools, is constantly visiting our schools and developing a first-hand, intimate knowledge of their strengths and needs. Wherever she goes, she brings joy, enthusiasm, expertise, and high expectations. She is also working hard to put together all available resources to assist our teachers.

For example, she and Madeline Lacovara (more on her later), recently asked Fairfield University to provide a deep discount for Catholic school teachers who haven’t yet obtained their certificates. I am deeply grateful to the Father Jeffrey Von Arx, S.J., the president of Fairfield University, and key members of his staff, who allowed themselves to come under the sway of these two very persuasive individuals!

I’m sure you see what’s happening here. Two intertwined goals are being pursued simultaneously: first and foremost is educational excellence; second is helping our hard-working educational leaders to attain their full potential. These, coupled with an ongoing commitment to the solid Catholic identity of our schools, are key factors to increasing the enrollment of our schools. Without apology to the best-selling business author, Jim Collins, we are making the move from “good to great.”

But that move requires another key ingredient: greater involvement of qualified members of the laity coupled with ongoing support by the clergy. During the past few months, a lot of people worked very hard to put into place a new governance model for our schools for the coming academic year. I am especially grateful to Msgr. Laurence Bronkiewicz and his committee for their work in refining the governance structure.

As you know, we are moving away from the existing regional system with its two-tiered boards of clergy and laity and multiple business offices. Rather, we are moving toward making each elementary school a diocesan school, with its own board made up of clergy, parents, and members of the laity with expertise in finance, marketing, and other skills important to the success of our schools. The goal of these boards is to make each and every school reach its full potential by responding more flexibly to the “market conditions” in various parts of Fairfield County.

In this new model, the Catholic Schools Office will oversee hiring principals and teachers, leadership development, and educational standards. There also will be a diocesan school board that will assist the diocese in establishing standards, strategic planning, and other vital questions.

Along with a new governance model, a new financial model for Catholic elementary schools is being studied, with the expectation of launching it in the academic year 2006-07. The goal is to ensure that things like tuition and parish subsidies for Catholic schools are fair and sufficient to meet the true needs of our schools.

Just a few days ago, I interviewed and hired Martin Tristane, a member of Our Lady of Peace Parish in Stratford with extensive business experience, as the director of school finance. Mr. Tristane and his wife sent their own children to Catholic schools when they were members of Saint Lawrence Parish in Shelton. He will be working with Norm Walker, the diocesan chief financial officer, and a small number of school business managers in strategic locations in the diocese.

Earlier, I promised to say a further word about Madeline Lacovara. Her focus is the six elementary schools in Bridgeport, known as the “Cathedral Cluster.” The Cluster was started about nine months ago, with Larry Bossidy, former CEO of Honeywell and Allied Signal, as chair of the board, and with Madeline as its president. Among many other qualifications, Madeline is the retired president of Classroom, Inc., a non-profit group that develops educational tools for urban schools. Sensing that opportunity was knocking, principals of the Cluster schools have stepped up to the plate as efforts have developed to upgrade the physical plants of these schools, to improve instruction, to enhance technology, and to provide more, much-needed, scholarship assistance.

The Cluster has started a “Patrons” program to attract major donors for the capital needs of the schools, and an “Angels” program to attract donors willing to provide scholarships to deserving young people who otherwise would not have the benefit of our schools. You can be a Patron for $100,000 and an Angel for $5,000 per student. Already, a number of very generous individuals have agreed to become Patrons and Angels. You’ll also be happy to know that reduced tuition fees together with an effective marketing campaign have already increased enrollment in these schools.

A final word about our five high schools. They are on the move. Saint Joseph High School in Trumbull and Immaculate High School in Danbury are involved in capital campaigns. This month, Trinity Catholic High School in Stamford will graduate 68 seniors and admit nearly 140 freshmen. Almost all our high schools have active advisory boards and are moving to a “president – principal” model. You should also know that 97% of our high school graduates go on to college.

Of course, I would need a whole book really to tell you all that is under way to revitalize our Catholic schools. But I hope this brief report will give you confidence that the commitment to our Catholic schools is strong and that we are making progress. And if you are parent wondering if Catholic schools are worth the investment of time, talent, and treasure, I’d urge you to seriously consider joining these efforts. As we say of our Bridgeport Catholic schools, "Have faith in your child's future!"

 

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