Spirituality for Today – December 2007 – Volume 12, Issue 5

Top Of The Charts

By The Most Reverend William E. Lori, S.T.D., Bishop Of Bridgeport

Photo of the Principals of 'Blue Ribbon'I know it's not Catholic Schools Week, but I cannot resist writing about our Catholic schools. As you will read on the front page of this edition of Fairfield County Catholic, Catholic schools in our diocese are undergoing a renaissance. The headline is that nine of our 33 elementary schools qualify to apply for recognition as "Blue Ribbon Schools" by the U.S. Department of Education. Many others are on the cusp of doing so. A school can only apply for such recognition if it is in the top 10 percent of all schools, both public and private.

In these times when we read about so many failing schools, this is good news indeed!

In fact, a lot is going on – so much so that I scarcely know where to begin. But I'll start with the governance model of our schools. A few years back, shortly after Dr. Margaret Dames began serving as Superintendent of Schools, the decision was made to reorganize our schools. Instead of regional schools – which had become too decentralized – we searched for a model that would provide for both local input and investment combined with more centralized oversight of Catholic identity, curriculum, in-servicing programs for teachers and school leaders, as well as school finances.

So we re-organized the schools as diocesan schools and charged each of them to field a single advisory board comprised of clergy and laity. We were looking to populate these boards with people whose passion for Catholic education is coupled with expertise in areas such as finance, management, marketing, strategic planning, and other allied skill sets. To aid these dedicated boards, a school finance and staffing model was developed, as well as a standard budgeting process. The goal was not to paper over challenges but, rather, to confront them head-on so as to ensure not only the survival of our schools but also their growth in excellence.

A few weeks ago, I invited these advisory boards to a dinner at the Catholic Center in Bridgeport. The room quickly filled, not just with people but also with energy and ideas. As I walked from table to table, many told me about their background and about the work their boards are doing on behalf of their schools. After dinner, Dr. Dames and her team presented an executive summary of current statistics and diocesan initiatives to strengthen our schools.

The statistical news was positive. Overall, enrollment is up nearly 2 percent this year over last year. Enrollment in the inner-city schools is up 4.4 percent over last year and is up 10 percent over the last several years.

Test scores continue to climb. Although the State of Connecticut does not allow private school children to take the same standard test (Connecticut Mastery Test) as their public school counterparts, they do take the Iowa Test of Basic Skills. Fortunately, we have found a way to compare the Connecticut and Iowa tests. By every measurement, Catholic school students in the Diocese of Bridgeport are doing very well. On average, they scored in the 90th percentile in reading and in math; this puts our students in the top 10 percent of all students in the United States.

Along with good statistical news, Dr. Dames' team reported on the progress of diocesan educational initiatives, such as curriculum mapping in reading, math, religion, and now science. Mapping is a process by which it is determined when and how the content called for in the curriculum is to be taught; in a word it is an educational road map for the benefit of parents, students, teachers, and educational leaders. It helps us gauge what we're doing, when we're doing it, and how well we're doing it. This process has led to a sharing of best practices across the system and renewed enthusiasm among teachers.

There is also good news on the technology front. Each school is required to have a technology plan. Our schools are investing in laptop computers on carts, Smart Boards, library programs, and other advances. Some are improving their science and computer labs. We also employ a technology curriculum group called "Educate" which supports our curriculum through the use of technology.

Coupled with enhanced technology is a new pre-engineering program that is about to be introduced into our high schools. It is envisioned as a partnership between Catholic and public schools by which an "academy" is to be established, most likely on a university campus. The purpose is to raise the level of science, math, and technology such that our children can compete on global basis and get into the much-neglected field of engineering.

We were also able to report that each Catholic school now has a marketing plan in place. Some are more advanced than others, but we do have a foundation on which to build. Michael Byrnes, a dedicated volunteer, is leading this effort throughout our schools. He is helping our schools to tell their stories of faith and educational excellence in a way that will grow the enrollment and build broader support in the State of Connecticut and in the various towns of our diocese. We also just hired Cathleen Donahue as a marketing specialist to work with Michael in carrying forward this plan.

I am most grateful to the clergy for the support they give to Catholic education and to these important advisory boards. But I must also give great credit to Dr. Dames and her team, including Dr. John Cook and Sr. Mary Grace Walsh, A.C.S.J., the Deputy Superintendents, together with Martin Tristine, who oversees the finances of our schools. It is a small, cohesive, and effective team that works tirelessly on behalf of Catholic school children and their parents.

In an age when businesses must replace bureaucracies with flexible and creative working groups, this team fills the bill nicely. And their efforts are bearing fruit. I was very pleased when, a few months ago, the Connecticut Post ran a headline on the leadership of "Dynamo Dames." Not only is she dynamic, she is also nearly ubiquitous. She and her team face problems head on without losing focus on the good things we're trying to accomplish. They are a study in what leadership should be.

Never to be forgotten is why we do all this. Of course, I am delighted that Catholic principals and teachers are highly successful educators. But we are in this for a reason: to communicate the Good News of Jesus Christ and to help our young people become the persons God meant them to be from all eternity. We are in it to build new generations of leadership in the Church and society, a corps of people who will know their faith and understand how it transforms the human condition while helping to shape a more humane society. And we are seeking the ultimate good of our students: friendship with God in company with the saints, beginning now and unfolding fully at the end of their lives.

Yes, it's not yet Catholic Schools Week, but any time is a good time to talk about these excellent schools. And it's true they may not be as flashy as their counterparts that are funded by public money, but the performance of our schools is at the top of the charts.

I hope that many parents will read this column and consider investing in their children's future – not only their immediate future but, indeed, their absolute future, the future that will never end.

Get more information on the Catholic Schools of the Diocese of Bridgeport.