Up Front and Personal

Academy Board Work Demands Commitment

by Mary Kay Rail-Kahaly

Converting a parish-based elementary school into a Catholic academy is a challenging and rewarding ministry.

After Mass in January, 2012, I was approached by Father Jim Cunningham, pastor of Holy Name parish in Park Slope, and was asked to “help with a special project.” A subsequent invitation to dinner at the rectory resulted in an opportunity to meet a group of interesting professionals with a variety of backgrounds.

Bishop Frank Caggiano led a lively discussion as he provided an in-depth explanation of the mission of Preserving the Vision. He explained that Holy Name and Immaculate Heart of Mary schools were both slated to close and re-open as a unified institution under the name of St. Joseph the Worker Catholic Academy. The academy would reside in the Holy Name School space and be managed by a board of directors. Everyone around the table were products of Catholic education and had deep concern for the importance of keeping it alive in our community. Bishop Caggiano’s enthusiasm was infectious.

Our discussion became quite engaging, and we discovered that each of us possessed a unique background and skill set that in retrospect would complement the mission of the board of directors. There were two attorneys, a technology sales executive, two Catholic educators/administrators and an insurance and finance expert. My background as a human resources executive rounded out the group. Each of us were nominated by our pastors and asked to serve on the board.

The academy was scheduled to open in September, 2012; so time was of the essence. We attended diocesan-sponsored training and orientation that provided an overview of what the board would be charged with. Directors are the governing body of the academy. They are responsible for civil, legal custody and control of property. Directors are charged with preserving and promoting the Catholic identity and mission of the academy. They hire and supervise the principal, approve the hiring of faculty and staff, maintain contact with parents, monitor the academic success of the academy and have fiduciary responsibility to operate as a corporation in a fiscally sound manner. Directors create the strategy for the academy.

The board reports to the Committee of Members, which in our case consisted of Bishop Frank Caggiano, Dr. Thomas Chadzuko, Ed.D, Father Robert Adamo (pastor of Immaculate Heart of Mary) and Father Cunningham. We couldn’t have asked for a better group to lead us. They were very supportive every step of the way. They assigned board mentor, Karen Suero, who has been a tremendous asset.

Assuming this responsibility had its share of challenges. As with many new things, you cannot truly understand what it is, and what it entails, until you do it firsthand. We had two legacy schools that were beloved in their parishes now closing and re-opening as something completely different. We were faced with facility issues, technology issues, engaging and calming the fears of the parent community, hiring a principal, faculty selection, figuring out our Catholic identity, creating a strategic plan, marketing and handling the finances.

The board met monthly and in the early days even more frequently in order to be in a position to open our doors in September. We structured ourselves in a way that would maximize our capabilities. John Amore assumed the role of treasurer; Brother Ralph Darmento, F.S.C., vice chair; Patrick Collins, recording secretary; and I was named board chair. Sister Patricia Hanvey, O.P., Gerry Keogh and Jim O’Dea completed the make-up of the board. We tackled each challenge as they came, hired a great principal in Robert DiNardo and successfully opened our doors on Sept. 5, 2012.

St. Joseph the Worker Catholic Academy is now in its second year. Enrollment is up. Our Home-School Association is in place, and we have recruited additional talent for our board (Christopher Artz, Janet Criscuoli, Mary Leopoldi and Glenn Thomas). We have engaged our parents as partners, and our subcommittees are launched. We introduced new and exciting academic programs and are working toward developing a sound, long-term technology strategy. In other words, the academy continues to be a work in progress.

What does it take to operate as a successful board of directors? In a word: commitment. Directors need to actively support and promote the academy’s mission. They must be involved, work as a team, walk the walk and talk the talk. Directors need to have an understanding of the academy’s mission, goals, operations and issues. They must support and provide encouragement to the principal, create and market the academy brand.

In other words, they must believe in the model and be enthusiastic about working hard to preserve the vision. Over time, it pays dividends as the halls of a school come alive in meaningful and exciting ways, in the smiles on the faces of the children whose education is entrusted to you and seeing the accomplishments of a graduating class. Knowing that as a director you play a small role in the educational and spiritual development of a child can be extremely rewarding work.[hr] Mary Kay Rail-Kahaly is the director of human resources for the DeSales Media Group.