By Brother Ralph Darmento, F.S.C.
As we prepare for the inauguration of another school year in the Diocese of Brooklyn, it might give us pause to remember and appreciate the beginnings of Catholic education in the diocese when the Sisters of Charity taught in the basement of the Cathedral School of St. James, Downtown Brooklyn in 1828.
Today, 86 elementary academies and schools (which includes 70 academies, 13 schools, Visitation Academy, Brooklyn Jesuit Prep and Catherine Laboure Special Education Program), and 18 secondary schools, work together to educate and form nearly 40,000 students. These communities of faith and learning are grounded in Church teachings, best practice and the proven success of those committed to the future of Catholic elementary and secondary education in the U.S.
While the first schools were steeped in the basics of religion, reading, writing, and arithmetic, today’s academies and schools are complex communities of faith and learning that are nourished by national, state and diocesan standards.
Each of the academies and schools subscribe to the National Standards and Benchmarks for Effective Catholic Elementary and Secondary Schools, a document written to describe how the most mission-driven, effective, well managed and responsibly governed Catholic schools operate.
The standards outline policies, programs, structures and processes that should be present in Catholic schools, and address four domains: mission and Catholic identity, governance and leadership, academic excellence and operational vitality.
Annually, Brooklyn and Queens Catholic elementary schools and academies report on the ways they reflect these standards, and their effectiveness as communities of Catholic formation, teaching and witnessing the faith.
Mission and Catholic Identity
Drawing from the spirit and philosophy of Preserving the Vision, the diocesan strategic plan for Catholic education, academies and schools detail adherence and commitment to our Catholic mission embracing the tenets of Catholic identity. These communities of faith and learning are rooted in Gospel values, centered on the Eucharist and committed to faith formation, academic excellence and service.
Evidence of this commitment is manifest in the excellence and rigor of our academic and intellectual formation provided in all subject areas, the utilization of Scripture and the Catholic intellectual tradition to assist students to think critically and ethically, and the invitation to foster aesthetic and cultural talent through visual and performing arts and music.
Students and faculty alike participate in regular opportunities to nurture their prayer life, participate in the Eucharist and partake of the sacraments. Age-appropriate opportunities are offered to students to reflect on their faith life through retreats and prayer services. In addition each student participates in service programs designed to bolster social justice awareness and action.
Governance and Leadership
This year, 70 elementary academies follow the two-tier governance model which encourages “the laity to assume the full duties and responsibilities” for governing these newly incorporated private, Catholic academies, chartered by the state of New York. The boards of directors for these academies are developing policies that reflect the academy’s mission, and work to ensure the viability, accessibility and affordability of Catholic education.
The directors are charged with hiring the academy principal, committed to meeting national, state and diocesan requirements for academy leadership and nurturing a culture that embodies the mission and vision of the academy.
The curriculum of the academies and schools clearly adhere to alignment with relevant national and state standards, 21st-century skills and Gospel values. Differentiated instruction allows for students to with varying learning styles and abilities to master content, concepts and skills while participating in learning experiences that offer opportunities for interdisciplinary learning, project learning and applications to real-world problem-solving. STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) programs are increasing, and lab experiences are commonplace in the science classes.
Several academies offer opportunities for students to enroll in secondary level classes at our Catholic high schools in mathematics, science, world language and the fine and performing arts.
Many colleges provide the opportunity for our high school students to earn credits through growing articulation programs. Advanced placement and college courses are offered at high schools in Brooklyn and Queens with many graduates starting their undergraduate careers with college credits.
A plethora of activities and athletic programs provide our students with the opportunity to develop “a sound mind and a sound body” while also pursuing their interests and dreams.
There is no escaping the fact that Catholic academies and schools are temporal organizations existing within the challenges of socioeconomic realities which dictate the necessity for continuous financial planning, personnel development and management, facilities maintenance and enhancement as well as the need to ensure viability and sustainability.
To this end, each academy participates in strategic planning that includes the participation of the wider community (boards, parents, faculty, alumni, donors, neighbors and friends) to guide the future direction of the institution toward growth and development.
At this writing, 29 academies have created excellent strategic plans; six more are in process and another six will begin planning in January, 2017. Along with the strategic plan, financial planning, under the mentorship of professors from the Peter J. Tobin College of Business at St. John’s University, is embraced as a means of providing good stewardship resources in accord with current and effective business standards and practices.
The Catholic community can be proud of the academies and schools in Brooklyn and Queens, where educators continue to “instill in the hearts of their students the vision of beauty, the light of truth and the practice of virtue.”
Brother Ralph Darmento, F.S.C., is the deputy superintendent for governance, leadership and strategic planning in the diocesan Office of the Superintendent-Catholic School Support Services.