Maria R. Bastone
LEARNING—Students pay attention at Our Lady of the Assumption School in the Pelham Bay section of the Bronx, which recently was declared a Blue Ribbon School of Excellence by the U.S. Department of Education.
‘Pathways to Excellence,” the long-awaited strategic plan to guide archdiocesan elementary schools as they move ahead in the 21st century, was released on Tuesday with the “whole-hearted endorsement” of Archbishop Dolan.
Aimed at ensuring the high quality and long-term viability of Catholic education in the archdiocese, the comprehensive three-year plan outlines specific objectives to strengthen and improve the Catholic schools, along with strategies to implement them.
It covers five categories: Catholic identity, leadership, academics, enrollment and communications, and governance and finance.
Some of the strategies are already under way or about to begin, including a partnership with the University of Notre Dame aimed at increasing the enrollment of Latino children in Catholic schools and an academy to prepare talented teachers to become principals.
The plan also tackles the challenge of funding the Catholic schools while still keeping them affordable. It acknowledges that some schools may close or merge, and says that the traditional parish-based operation of the schools may change to a regional system.
Archbishop Dolan, in a letter introducing the Pathways to Excellence plan, praised the “splendid job” that Catholic schools in the archdiocese have done for the last 200 years, “educating children from many backgrounds, giving them the tools and confidence to succeed.”
“But Catholic education today is undeniably challenged by forces none of us envisioned when we were sitting at little wooden desks lined up in the parochial schools of our youth,” he wrote.
Nonetheless, he declared, “Our schools are here to stay.”
In that regard, he said, “Pathways to Excellence is a daring yet practical strategic plan designed to ensure an academically excellent and fully enrolled Catholic school system, poised for growth and longevity.”
The plan was introduced after an extensive research and discussion process initiated in early 2009 by the superintendent of schools, Dr. Timothy McNiff, with the support of Cardinal Egan, who was then archbishop of New York. Archbishop Dolan embraced the effort when he succeeded Cardinal Egan in April 2009.
“Our strategic plan is about continuous improvement,” Dr. McNiff said. “Pathways to Excellence articulates in a very precise manner goals that are achievable and sustainable over the next three years.
“Most importantly, the plan provides solutions for preserving the excellence traditionally found in our classrooms by establishing a more realistic business plan for operating Catholic schools,” he said.
Among the points which had not previously been discussed in detail, the plan calls for a study to identify schools that are not sustainable financially, along with recommendations on closing or merging some of those schools in the 2011-2012 school year.
In addition, the plan calls for the establishment of education regions, each of which will encompass all parishes in a defined geographic area, and the creation of regional education boards to oversee funding. The boards will work with the Office of the Superintendent and the archdiocesan Finance Office, both of which will have an increased oversight role in the schools’ budgets.
Among a range of strategies to finance the schools, the plan calls for establishing a new education fund with proceeds from the sale or lease of properties. Although it is not spelled out in the plan, both Archbishop Dolan and Dr. McNiff have said in recent months that these properties would include closed schools.
The goal, as explained in the 29-page plan, is that “every child will have access to a Catholic education and every parish will support a Catholic school in the archdiocese, even if the school is not located within the parish boundary.”
Specific goals and strategies include fostering Catholic identity by creating educational programs for all adults in the school community, providing catechists with professional development and educational tools and designing an assessment tool for religious instruction to identify and assist schools in need of support in that area. Significant religious feast days will be incorporated into the school calendar, and students will be led in prayer at appropriate times of the day.
School leadership will be enhanced via new strategies to recruit, evaluate and support principals, including strengthening the screening process, rewarding high performance and offering professional development programs with clearly defined leadership goals.
Academics, the traditional strength of Catholic schools, will expand the already rigorous standards-based programs by focusing on curriculum and instruction, accountability and professional development for teachers. The plan also calls for integrating technology into academics, enhancing the staffing and support of early childhood programs, and better accommodation of students with special learning needs.
Finally, the plan calls for schools in the archdiocese to tell their “powerful and compelling” stories, rather than continuing to rely on tradition and word of mouth to fill their seats.
“This modest approach,” the plan says, “undoubtedly contributed to the decline in enrollment over the past decade.”
To reverse that, and to re-establish “a dynamic system of fully enrolled schools,” the Office of the Superintendent will lead an effort that includes development of a recognizable brand and implementing an integrated marketing campaign for Catholic schools along with a media plan to tell their story to the wider community.
“Although the timeless mission of the Catholic schools remains unchanged, the tools used to fulfill it vary with each generation,” the plan says, in its conclusion.
Pathways to Excellence identifies the challenges and solutions for today, it says, with the ultimate goal of ensuring that “the school system of the Archdiocese of New York is among the best in the nation.”
The full plan is available on the Office of the Superintendent Web site: www.adnyeducation.org.