by Gail Donovan,
This is the fifth in a series of articles about the future of Catholic schools in Brooklyn and Queens.
Principals and board members who have converted withering schools into thriving academies say that improved academics, new extracurricular activities, a focus on Catholic identity, partnerships with universities and private individuals and firms, and effective communication with and marketing to parents are among the factors that have contributed to their success.
Under Preserving the Vision, the Diocese of Brooklyn has established 17 academies and the initiative calls for converting all Catholic elementary schools into academies by 2017. The academies are new entities that have replaced a single school or schools that have merged, and are supervised by a two-tier governance structure made up of pastors from surrounding parishes and boards comprised of lay people.
According to the 2010-2011 Preserving the Vision annual report, “The long-term goal of Preserving the Vision is to perpetuate the mission of Catholic elementary schools by proactively creating a new paradigm of ‘multiple partnerships’ designed to strengthen every aspect of a Catholic elementary school and to transform it into an academy that includes competent lay leadership in its governance. These partnerships will strengthen its long-term viability and stability.”
Auxiliary Bishop Frank Caggiano, Vicar General, and Thomas Chadzutko, Ed.D, superintendent of Schools, highlighted the Diocese of Brooklyn’s ongoing commitment to Catholic education in recent Preserving the Vision newsletters.
“The success of our Catholic schools continues to be a major initiative for the faithful of the Diocese of Brooklyn,” Bishop Caggiano and Dr. Chadzutko wrote. “Essential to the success of Catholic education in our communities today are the resources needed to provide it. We are working not only to promote our teachings of the Gospel message, but we are also expanding our educational and technological opportunities to optimize student achievement. Through Preserving the Vision, we are allowed further development of partnerships with colleges and universities, which will benefit our students through expansion of educational resources.”
To ensure excellence in Catholic education, Dr. James Hennessy, dean of the Graduate School of Education at Fordham University and a member of the Preserving the Vision Advisory Committee’s Finance and Business Planning Subcommittee, has proposed a partnership between Fordham and the Diocese of Brooklyn that will create the Office of Catholic School Accreditation. The accreditation process will evaluate parochial schools and academies on the quality of their academics, financial structure, adherence to Catholic identity, and physical plant.
Dr. Hennessy said such an accreditation by an independent entity like Fordham will demonstrate a standard of excellence that the schools and academies can use in their marketing to demonstrate that they are a viable alternative to the local public schools.
Suzanne Karl, chair of the board of Divine Wisdom Catholic Academy in Douglaston and a member of the Preserving the Vision Advisory Committee’s Marketing, Recruitment, and Retention Subcommittee, said Divine Wisdom believes in a vertically integrated education that links the elementary grades, with a high school, and college. For that reason, the academy is partnering with St. Francis Prep, Fresh Meadows, on community service projects and academic programs like Pi Day, a math initiative, and uses the high school’s science lab. On the college level, St. John’s University is bringing an anti-bullying program into the academy, and the Divine Wisdom board has been participating with other academies in board training by St. John’s.
Kevin Coyne, principal of Our Lady’s Catholic Academy in South Ozone Park, said he and his board embrace every partnership opportunity available. The academy has been designated a Super School by The Rowland Reading Foundation, which provides Pre-K-2 students with phonics-based instruction, resulting in significant gains on standardized testing.
Most recently the Our Lady’s board agreed to provide $15,000 to supplement a $10,000 grant from Alive in Hope Foundation and Futures in Education to provide the entire sixth grade class with iPad2s. The purchase was prompted by increased enrollment and cost savings created by the discontinued use of paper textbooks.
Coyne also aggressively markets the academy. When he arrived at Our Lady’s Catholic Academy in June of 2009, only 180 students were registered for the 2009-2010 school year. He immediately began a full court press marketing effort, calling every parent whose child had attended St. Anthony Padua, which closed, but hadn’t reregistered for the new academy, and held open houses three times a week. Through his efforts over the summer, the new academy opened in September with 272 students. It has continued to grow to 340 students because of his marketing efforts.
For Thomas Rowland, chairman of the board of directors for Ave Maria Catholic Academy, Howard Beach, it has been important to retain the academy’s Catholic identity. Rowland, his daughter, and mother all graduated from Our Lady of Grace, the school that Ave Maria Catholic Academy replaced.
“Howard Beach is a special place,” Rowland said. “That’s why I decided to get involved because if we lose Catholic education in our community we were going to lose a lot of the spirit here.”
As a board member, Rowland believes that “success can be measured by educating the children and keeping Christ in everything you do.”
A full copy of Preserving the Vision Strategic Plan 2011-2014 is available at http:/mybqcatholicschool.com.