Following a year-long process and analysis of stakeholder surveys, interviews and pertinent data, the Diocese’s Office of Catholic Education unveiled a strategic vision aimed at ensuring the future success of its schools.
The strategic vision, entitled “Christ Before Me,” was introduced on May 12 to principals, pastors, and stakeholders who gathered at the Diocesan Conference Center in Harrisburg, and to teachers and staff watching via livestream.
A vibrant slideshow featuring photos from Diocesan schools and teacher testimonials set the tone for the event, highlighting the best of Catholic school education and strategies to maintain their health and vibrancy going forward.
“There is such a hunger for Catholic education in this Diocese; it’s palpable. The strategic vision work confirmed that for me,” Daniel Breen, Diocesan Secretary for Education and Superintendent of Catholic Schools, said during the presentation.
He underscored that the strategic vision is just the start of an ongoing process.
“Today is simply the presentation of the concepts that we need to focus on as we seek to improve and build our schools. Today is the beginning, not an end,” he said.
“There is no set timeframe, no expiration date for the strategic vision,” he added.
The presentation of the strategic vision is the result of a year-long effort of the Office of Catholic Education and an 11-member steering committee of parents, educators and clergy. It is the fruit of more than 8,000 surveys of educators and stakeholders, 120 interviews with principals, pastors and stakeholders, the examination of the Diocese’s 35 Catholic schools, and an analysis of the schools’ demographic data.
Quoting the Introductory Strategic Vision Statement, Breen remarked: “We are at a critical juncture in our world, Church and Diocese in this time of unprecedented change and challenge. Maintaining the status quo in how our schools are operated is no longer possible. To be true to the mission of the Church, to respond effectively to 21st century changes and challenges, and to preserve and develop our Catholic schools, our bishop commissioned ‘Christ Before Me: A Strategic Vision for Catholic Schools in the Diocese of Harrisburg.’ As a result of this process, the Office of Catholic Education has embarked on a journey to re-envision our Catholic schools.”
There are some 10,000 students and 1,000 teachers and staff in the Diocese’s 35 Catholic schools (29 elementary and six secondary). This school year saw an enrollment increase of 6.5% across the board from the previous year, with students performing a total of more than 100,000 service hours and receiving $325 million in college scholarships. Hundreds of students have been brought to the Catholic faith because of their Catholic school education.
While celebrating these successes, Catholic schools face enormous challenges, Breen said, pointing to a decrease in enrollment over the past 20 years (from 15,000 in 2002 to 10,000 in 2022), financial pressures for parents paying tuition, and a decrease in religious vocations.
“Like any successful organization, we must be reflective and adapt; like good teachers, we must focus on continual improvement and have a growth mindset,” Breen said.
“Our mission to ‘Go and teach all nations’ will not change, will never change, cannot change,” he stressed. “But we need to double-down on that mission and to be even more countercultural. Our strategy and our approach to that mission has to be adjusted. It’s time to envision, to plan, to strategize and to work together.”
Key Themes and Objectives
Five key themes emerged from the steering committee’s work on the strategic vision: discipleship, innovation, collaboration, support and engagement.
“These themes are all part of the intentional culture that we seek to form in and among our schools,” Breen said.
He underscored the four objectives of the strategic vision:
- To form disciples of Jesus Christ. Our schools will have healthy enrollments and will be full of engaged students who experience the Gospel preached with joy and modeled with fidelity.
- To nurture an ethic of excellence in our schools and to employ an innovative and varied curriculum.
- To implement robust new efforts to acquire, develop and retain talented, committed Catholic-school professionals. We affirm and value our teachers and staff as vital ministers of the Church’s “New Evangelization” mission, worthy of investment and compensated accordingly.
- We will re-envision the structure, funding, and governance of our schools through a comprehensive and collaborative strategic planning process.
“We need to begin a cycle of continual improvement as a system of schools,” Breen said.
He presented the strategic vision’s four domains of focus – Catholic Identity and Mission, Governance and Leadership, Academic Excellence and Operational Vitality – and spoke extensively on key results areas of each domain, giving concrete examples for steps moving forward.
Key result areas for Catholic Identify and Mission are to measure and grow student faith engagement; emphasize high quality instruction in the faith; and invest in the formation of educators.
The key result areas for Governance and Leadership are to study and promote new governance leadership models; commit to a strategic planning process for Catholic schools; and develop and implement a new architecture to connect Catholic schools and foster collaboration.
In the Academic Excellence domain, key result areas are to focus on student engagement; prioritize the educators and staff working in the schools; ensure high quality training and coaching for teachers; explore and invest in new curricular approaches; and measure academic results and set goals for academic achievement.
The key result areas in the fourth and final domain, Operational Vitality, are to engage the community to improve resources and support; improve communication among all stakeholders; proactively support the parish/school partnership; and create and implement an assertive enrollment management plan.
Bolstering the efforts of Catholic school principals, administrators, teachers and staff, Breen lauded them for their dedication and hard work, and heartened them to strategize together for the health and vitality of the schools, and for the success of their students.
Concluding the presentation of the strategic plan, Breen reiterated its four foundational statements as the purpose behind the effort:
- We proclaim Jesus Christ as the foundation of our Catholic school community.
- Catholic schools, as partners with families, are the best setting for forming children as disciples, and our Catholic schools shape and sustain our Diocese as they form our future parishioners.
- The status quo in our schools is no longer working. We must seek fresh, innovative approaches together while always putting faith first.
- We fervently seek and claim the “hope that does not disappoint” (Romans 5:5) that the Lord has poured into our hearts.”
Steering committee member Dr. Nga Vu, a parent and member of the parish council and school board at St. John Neumann in Lancaster, expressed her belief that “success and growth in Catholic school and faith” are preparing children for “productive careers as well as skills, strengths and fortitude for life challenges.”
“I really want our Catholic schools to continue to strive for excellence and thrive the next 30 years for our kids’ kids,” she said.
“I want you all to get excited,” she told attendees, “because while the future looks daunting, I have faith. I believe God inspired and guided us as we developed this strategic vision, committed to the goals of Catholic identity, governance and leadership, academic excellence and operational vitality.”
Bishop Ronald Gainer also addressed the members of the school communities, expressing his prayers that the schools would be “schools of discipleship.”
He also spoke on the virtue of hope as Catholic schools undertake the strategic vision plans.
“Hope is the theological virtue by which we desire the Kingdom of Heaven and Eternal Life as our happiness,” he quoted from the Catechism. “Placing our trust in Christ’s promise and relying not on our own strength, but on the help of the grace of the Holy Spirit.”
“It’s plain to see that the virtue of hope is not simple optimism,” the bishop said.
“Theological hope – that hope which rests on the person of Jesus Christ – is not the conviction that things will always turn out well. Rather, theological hope is the orientation of our heart and of our lives that rests on the conviction that no matter how things turn out, God has a purpose which will become evident in God’s time…. Without this great hope, we are ultimately hope-less.”
“Why all this talk about the theological virtue of hope? Because it’s the bedrock of the vision we are gathered to present this afternoon,” Bishop Gainer remarked. “The four foundational statements fix as the pivotal ideas of our strategy that Jesus is the foundation of our Catholic school communities;… that discipleship is the primary emphasis of our vision; and, after our families, our schools are the very best environments for forming children as disciples of Christ.”
Learn more about Catholic schools in the Diocese of Harrisburg at www.GoCatholicSchools.org.
(Photos by Chris Heisey, The Catholic Witness.)
By Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness