| Debbie Gardner
SPRINGFIELD – On May 22, Bishop Mitchell T. Rozanski and Dioceses School Superintendent Dr. Daniel Baillargeon released the results of a 15-month study of the state of Catholic education in the Diocese of Springfield. Commissioned by the Bishop and undertaken by a group that included community members, business leaders, and members of school, parish and lay leadership, this committee was asked to evaluate the existing system of schools, review past plans for Catholic education in the Diocese to see what might be tried again, evaluate the education models employed by other dioceses and present a report on their findings.
The result was “Pathways to Faith,” – a 32-page document released during a press conference at Springfield’s only remaining Catholic elementary and middle school, St. Michael’s Academy, located in the Forest Park neighborhood of the city.
St. Michael’s Academy was created in 2009 by the consolidation of the city’s five Catholic elementary schools – Our Lady of Hope, Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, Holy Name, Holy Cross and Our Lady of Mount Carmel.
“Pathways” presents a comprehensive look at all aspects of Catholic education in parish, regional and Diocese-run schools as currently offered in the Diocese – from financial stability and oversight to staff training, curriculum and parish connections. It examines initiatives employed over the past 20 years to provide some short-term relief and their potential impact on the long-term future of Catholic education in the area.
It also highlights five areas where the committee believed the Diocese could begin moving forward to meet some of its current challenges. To revitalize the area’s Catholic education, the commission stated all area Catholic schools need to: fully participate in the evangelizing mission of Christ, excel not just academically but in all aspects of life, be accessible to everyone who desired a Catholic education, be good stewards of their resources and financially sustainable and, be governed in a manner that engaged and empowered people and placed accountability at the right level. *
Following the report’s release, Reminder Publishing reached out to the Diocese with a series of questions about the report’s findings. Dr. Baillargeron, superintendent of schools for the Doicese, provided these responses:
Reminder: Among some of the recommendations in this report are building Catholic-based preschools and daycares in parishes with large percentages of young families – especially those who are underprivileged – to help insure a Catholic education is available to all. This seems a reversal of the centralization initiative that has been the recent education model. Is this a realistic goal for the future? Could it eventually lead to a return to the parish school model?
Baillargeon: As you can see in the Pathways report, we state, “because of the natural connection which should exist between a parish and a school, it has the potential to provide the greatest operational vitality in its overall connection to the evangelizing mission of Catholic education.” Pathways does not look to centralize to the detriment of community. When we discuss centralization, we are looking at ways to pool resources and provide systemic support so that parish schools can be more sustainable. Where there is not a natural connection, we want these schools to function in a way that best supports the mission of the schools. It is very realistic to open preschools and daycares as they have lower costs with respect to overhead, they are a community need, and they help us in our mission by walking with these families at the beginning of the school journeys.
Reminder: The report also mentions the potential for expanding into additional education offerings beyond the traditional rigorous college-prep model, including a Catholic –base alternative academy and Catholic-based vocational training. How might this change the attractiveness of a Catholic education for families?
Baillargeon: It is important to look at the need of our families. Not every high-school age child wants to attend a preparatory school. Without compromising our standards for academic excellence, and in partnering with local businesses and community leaders we can provide other types of educational experiences that flow out from the Catholic intellectual tradition. This does not just include 21st century vocational tech schools even though there is a need in our Diocese for that track. It also includes classical education tracks, Fine Arts degrees, STEM tracks, business tracks, and partnerships with local colleges and universities.
Reminder: In the area of oversight, the report advocates for the establishment of a Bishop’s Commission for Catholic Education – with clear bylaws, authority, accountability and terms of office – and the addition of an Associate Superintendent, School Finance Manager and /Development Marketing position in the Catholic School Office, all with specific job descriptions. How might these institutional changes help advance the Diocese’s Catholic education mission?
Baillargeon: It will take the community working together to accomplish the revitalization of the Catholic schools. Catholic schools support their communities and, their graduates provide a certain social capital when they leave our schools. This is because we are a functional community. Expanding that community can only be beneficial as it draws more people into the important work of fortifying our schools. As for the personnel recommendations, it is essential that the Catholic Schools Office has a staff that is capable of working on the initiatives in the report. The critical positions provide oversight to the implementation of the recommendations and a sounding board so that the Catholic Schools Office is also functioning as a community.
Reminder: Affordability and the financial viability of continuing to provide a high quality Catholic education have been an increasing concern since the original religious-based teaching model has moved to a lay teacher structure. The report examines multiple aspects of this issue, from equitably assessing parishes to support Catholic education to the formula for distributing Catholic Appeals funds to increased stewardship drives and the consolidation purchases and services for economy of scale. Are any of these viable options to help with financial stability in the short term? In the long term?
Baillargeon: In the immediate term, allocation of funding is necessary to hire the personnel and seed the first level initiatives laid out in the report. In the short-term, if parishes are capable of pooling a portion of their Educational Assessment for the needs of their parishioners, it is the hope that they will be incentivized to support Catholic educational initiatives and access questions in their own deaneries. In the long-term, redesigning our tuition in such a way that maximizes the number of people who can afford to send their children to our schools and shrinks the discrepancy between the cost-to-educate for a child and the amount of money received by families can only have a positive impact on our overall fiscal potential and financial sustainability.
Reminder: Finally, the report does not present itself as an “ultimate goal” but as “lighting the first torch” on the pathway to successful Catholic education. It cites the need for more research, but does present a five-point mission statement which includes the need for Catholic schools to evangelize the mission of Christ, be excellent not just academically but in all aspects of life, be accessible to all that wish a Catholic education, be good stewards and financially sustainable and be governed in a way that engages and empowers people and places accountability at the right level. Looking forward, are these achievable objectives for Catholic education in the Diocese?
Baillargeon: As with all reports, if this does not turn into a Strategic Plan and then Strategic Action, the recommendations will not provide comprehensive benefits to our schools. If, however, by engaging our schools, pastors, priests, community members, business owners, etc. around the important mission of our schools, the overall objective of revitalizing our schools will be achieved. It is possible that certain recommendations do not come to fruition. As with walking on any pathway, there might be turns in the road, but with broad support, we are not walking alone. Through the expertise and engagement of the entire community, we can best discern how to handle those potential changes. All in all, however, these recommendations were well researched, and developed in a way that best supports our mission to provide a high-quality Catholic education to all those who desire one.
To read the “Pathways to Faith” report in full, visit http://iobserve.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/Complete-Report-5.21.19.pdf.
*Summarized from the executive summary of the “Pathways to Faith” report.