By Mary Morrell | Correspondent
Five years ago, Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., established a School Sustainability Commission, charging a group of 24 men and women with the task of investigating, among other things, the viability and vibrancy of Catholic elementary schools in the Diocese.
Recommendations developed during the 15-month-long study were presented to the Bishop in May 2013 for his consideration and acceptance. The following fall, Bishop O’Connell and a team of diocesan education officers conducted site visits of 10 at-risk schools, highlighting key measures to help preserve each school’s viability. Recommendations dealing with community engagement and marketing, tuition assistance and restructuring, and alternative “fill the seat” options were among those advocated by the Bishop and his team.
With five years in which to implement proactive and impactful measures, Bishop O’Connell called for the review as the logical follow-up to the work of the commission. He called for a Sustainability Review committee, which along with members of six subcommittees, met for the first time Nov. 28.
“The committee is charged with reaffirming the recommendations” of the original study, said JoAnn Tier, diocesan superintendent of Catholic Schools, who, along with Franciscan Father Gabriel Zeis, diocesan vicar for Catholic Education, co-chaired the committee. “They are also asked to expand on current initiatives, delete or revise those that currently are not meeting the goals and to share new ideas to support Catholic schools for the next three years,” she explained.
“With the exception of two individuals, members asked to serve on the committee are new to the process. This provides additional input from an expanded group of stakeholders supporting Catholic schools,” Tier added, noting there are 32 members in total on both the committee and subcommittees, representing pastors, diocesan officials, school administrators and community leaders.
The subcommittees, focusing on Catholic Identity, governance, academics, finances, marketing and development, met in December, Tier said. “The committee members will return in January and review the recommendations, changes and new concepts proposed,” she added.
The 2012 commission, composed of some two dozen members with a wide breadth of experience, each affiliated with Catholic schools, including parents, business leaders, educators, diocesan administrators, clergy and religious, was led by Dr. John J. Convey, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton professor of education and former provost at The Catholic University of America.
Convey, a statistician, researcher and expert on strategic planning for Catholic schools, had conducted some 20 similar diocesan-wide planning and evaluation studies during the past 30 years. Under his direction, the commission met monthly and split up into six task forces to focus on specific critical areas of school sustainability: Catholic identity, academics, finance, development, governance and leadership, and marketing and public relations.
Serving as second consultant for the study was Dr. Leonard DeFiore, professor of education in The Catholic University of America, former president of the National Catholic Educational Association, and former superintendent of schools in the Diocese of Metuchen during the early 1990s.
The study process, which included a series of listening sessions with pastors and principals, and working group meetings including several hundred school and parish representatives, as well as an anonymous online survey, identified elements considered to be priority challenges: the need to keep tuition affordable; build enrollment; increase teachers’ salaries to attract and retain top teachers; reduce operating costs; ease the financial burden on parishes for the operation of the schools; enhance the curriculum and provide for the best technology; strengthen support within the parish community, and preserve the Catholic identity of the school.
In a 2013 message about the sustainability of Catholic schools, Bishop O’Connell highlighted the words of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI: “The essential task of authentic education at every level is not simply that of passing on knowledge, essential as this is, but also of shaping hearts. There is a constant need to balance intellectual rigor in communicating effectively, attractively and integrally, the richness of the Church’s faith with forming the young in the love of God (May 5, 2012).”
“Catholic education in and through our Catholic schools accomplishes that task. To sustain them, wherever and whenever possible, sustains that profound mission,” stressed Bishop O’Connell.