The Future of Catholic Schools – Diocese’s First Academy Continues To Be a Model for Others

by Gail Donovan

This is the second in a series of articles about the future of Catholic schools in Brooklyn and Queens.

When Father Thomas Doyle arrived at St. Thomas Aquinas in the Flatlands section of Brooklyn in 2004, he found a parish school with dwindling enrollment housed in a building badly in need of repair.  Nearby, he discovered that Father Anthony Rucando, pastor of Our Lady Help of Christians, also was facing declining enrollment at his parish school.

The two priests huddled with Thomas Chadzutko, Ed.D, superintendent of Schools-Catholic School Support Services, within the Diocese of Brooklyn, and proposed merging the two schools into one new academy.

“We were trying to be proactive in responding to the need for Catholic education in our community,” Father Doyle recalls.

The proposal was approved and Midwood Catholic Academy opened in 2005 with 275 students in the former Our Lady Help of Christians School building. In the meantime, Father Doyle rented the former St. Thomas Aquinas School building to a private school for three years, which gave him the capital needed to upgrade the physical plant. Within three years, Midwood Catholic Academy proved to be so successful that it outgrew its first home, and moved to the larger, now renovated former St. Thomas Aquinas School site in 2009.

Today Midwood Catholic Academy is vibrant and thriving. The student population has blossomed to a healthy 387 students. The academy features nursery and pre-k classes that are at capacity, two kindergarten classes, two fourth grades, two sixth grades, two seventh grades, and two eighth grades, said Principal Elena Heimbach.

Students at Midwood Catholic Academy attend Mass once a week, and participate in band, music, art, gym, library, and computer classes as part of their curriculum. Spanish is offered to students in grades two through eight. Algebra 1 at St. Edmund Prep is available to advanced math students, and Title I courses in math, reading, and ESL are provided to those needing additional assistance.

The academy is Middle States accredited, standardized test scores are above average, and summer school is offered to help students strengthen their academic performance in math and English language arts. Extracurricular activities such as drama, arts and crafts, dance, video yearbook, needlepoint, and book clubs are coordinated by teachers afterschool, and family activities are offered such as International Night, card parties, and the Christmas tree lighting before the Christmas show.

Father Doyle said the first board of directors for Midwood Catholic Academy included pastors and parishioners from St. Thomas Aquinas, Our Lady Help of Christians, and St. Brendan’s; Heimbach, who was hired as principal from outside the two schools; and Dr. Chadzutko. Since Midwood Catholic Academy was one of the first academies created in the Diocese of Brooklyn, Father Doyle said all of the parties involved understood they were entering uncharted waters and that they had to cooperate if the new academy was going to thrive.

“We pooled all of our resources together and created a school that has succeeded,” Father Doyle said.

Dr. Chadzutko said that although Midwood Catholic Academy and the other early academies started with a single board, the diocese’s vision of a two-tier governance structure was formalized when the strategic planning process for Catholic education called Preserving the Vision was unveiled in 2008.

Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio had formed a Diocesan Task Force for Catholic Elementary Schools in 2004 to identify “a long-term, visionary, and perhaps revolutionary approach to preserving Catholic elementary schools in Brooklyn and Queens.”

More than 10 years earlier in 1993, a Strategic Plan for Catholic Elementary Schools, known as the Convey Study after Dr. John J. Convey of The Catholic University of America who compiled it, was accepted by the diocese. The study found that parents placed a premium on Catholic teaching and doctrine, and sought the best value for their educational dollar.

After examining a number of academy governance models nationwide, Preserving the Vision adopted a two-tier academy governance model consisting of members appointed by the diocesan bishop, pastors/administrators of the parishes aligned to the academy, and ex-officio representatives, including the Superintendent, Office of the Superintendent-Catholic Support Services. The members are the prime sponsors of the academy and their responsibilities include appointing the directors and ensuring the academy’s overall Catholic identity.
The directors of the academies have backgrounds in finance, education, development, marketing, and facilities, and develop the policies that reflect the academy’s mission and work to ensure its future through strategic planning and outreach. The boards made up of lay leaders serve in the spirit of the Second Vatican Council, which recognized that lay men and women are essential to assisting the Catholic Church to maintain vital ministries and to plan for its future.

While Father Doyle was launching an academy in his community, similar discussions were being held “to keep Catholic education alive in Canarsie,” reports Arlene Barcia, principal of Our Lady of Trust Academy, which formed in 2006 from Holy Family, Our Lady of Miracles, and St. Jude Schools. Initially, the academy had three separate campuses, but since 2009 the academy has maintained schools at the Our Lady of Miracles and St. Jude sites where enrollment is 428 students.

Barcia praised the two-tier governance model and members of the academy’s board of directors who are “hardworking, dedicated, and wonderful to work with.” Another advantage to the academy model is that it has expanded the world beyond the boundaries of one parish.
To encourage camaraderie and build school spirit on two separate campuses, students and teachers travel back and forth between the two sites, said Barcia. Joint faculty meetings and parent meetings are held with the locations alternating between sites. After-school clubs and the talent show are open to students from both campuses, and students from one campus travel to attend assemblies at the other site. School buses are available to transport the students between campuses.

“We reach out to four parishes (Holy Family, Our Lady of Miracles, St. Jude, and St. Laurence) so you don’t feel like you’re in a small parish school,” Barcia said. “You feel that you’re part of something bigger and that you can grow and try new things. We’re working to give the children the best education we can give to them and we are thinking outside of the box.”

A full copy of Preserving the Vision Strategic Plan 2011-2014 is available at www.mybqcatholicschool.com.[hr] Gail Donovan is a member of the diocesan Strategic Marketing Communications Committee for Catholic Schools.