Thursday, October 6, 2022

Strategic Vision, Healthy Enrollment Propel Catholic Schools into New Academic Year

In May, as the Diocese’s 35 schools were bringing another academic year to its conclusion, the Diocese’s Office of Catholic Education unveiled a strategic vision aimed at ensuring the future success of its schools.

Now, four months later, the strategic vision is producing actionable steps as a new school year begins – a positive step forward for the continued health, vitality and Catholic identity of the Diocese’s Catholic schools.

“The vision was part of the planning we are doing as a system of schools,” said Daniel Breen, Diocesan Secretary for Education and Superintendent of Catholic Schools.

Entitled “Christ Before Me,” the strategic vision is the result 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.

The vision is a presentation of the concepts that are areas of focus as administrators, educators and stakeholders work to strengthen Catholic schools. Five themes emerged from the strategic vision: Catholic identity and mission, governance and leadership, academic excellence, operational vitality and strategic planning.

And now, with the vision in mind, action is taking place.

“Five working groups will start meeting on operational vitality (with a focus on the parish/school relationship), discipleship to Christ (where we will work to clarify what we mean by discipleship, and seek to promote it in our schools), compensation for Catholic school teachers and staff, governance and leadership models in our schools, and strategic planning,” Breen said. “The work of these groups will put the vision into action, and will help us with the next stage of planning, too.”

Members of the working groups including principals and educators, among other stakeholders.

Crystal Noel, Academics and Data Specialist in the Office of Education, said several new initiatives are also underway in response to the strategic vision. These include the introduction of the “Charism and Culture” book by Timothy J. Cook, PhD., which examines ways that schools can use their unique resources to cultivate Catholic identity; the development of a weekly newsletter to continue the focus on communication between schools and the Office of Catholic Education; and the VIRTUS Empowering God’s Children® training for all students enrolled in its Catholic schools and religious education classes. The training gives children and young people the tools they need to protect themselves from those who might harm them.

“Our office is actively trying to build partnerships and be collaborative with our schools, to be a resource for them,” said Noel. “At the start of a school year, it’s exciting to already see the growth and the great things our schools are doing.”

The Financial Front

As of September 14, 19 of the Diocese’s schools have seen an increase in enrollment. And, every school has a positive cash balance.

“Our schools are doing very well. Enrollment is strong, and our finances are improving rapidly,” Breen remarked. “After a month of the current fiscal year, every one of our 35 schools was in a positive cash position, and we want that to continue.”

Also on the financial front, the Office of Catholic Education is celebrating a partnership with a strategic development partner that has resulted in more than $600,000 in Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) monies for 16 schools so far.

“We have found the power of partnerships to be an amazing asset to our schools.  RedefinEd Advisors, an LLC out of the Johnstown area, offers a number of services to our schools, but the one that really caught my attention was their expertise in the EITC tax credit program,” Breen said. “We have long known that EITC was a largely untapped resource: many schools have wanted to find more EITC financial aid resources, but just did not know how to go about it, or just did not have the personnel. RedefinED Advisors provides the work and the knowledge, and they have made a major impact quickly. Since May, they have brought in over $600,000 in EITC dollars for the 16 schools they are working with, and they are just getting started.”

Catholic Identity

A key theme of the strategic vision is the formation of 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,” the strategic vision states.

“The Catholic identity of our schools is, of course, our primary point of emphasis,” Breen said. “We embrace the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ emphasis on teaching the Eucharist, continue to implement the Credible Catholic program, and will adopt Theology of the Body in our schools.”

The Office of Catholic Education is also working with schools to implement a Catholic Classical Education model, an approach that embraces the history of the faith to help students grow spiritually and academically by experiencing literature, art and history. The model allows students to see the connectedness of what they are learning, a naturally integrated Catholic identity in the curriculum, and an emphasis on the good, beauty and truth revealed in God’s creation.

“Our schools are doing great things,” said Noel. As a former principal herself, she said her work in the Office of Catholic Education aligns with the vision she has an educator.

“I enjoy seeing the strengths of all our schools. They operate as solid anchors in their communities. Each one has their own resources and they all do it in their own way, but you can see God’s purpose shining through in each one of them,” she said.

Breen said the Office of Catholic Education – with a change in staffing in recent years and the development of the strategic vision – is intentional in its work to support schools.

“The office seeks to accompany our schools, to walk with them in solidarity, and to assist them in every way possible towards excellence in Catholic education,” he said. “We can provide guidance and support and knowledge of best practices in Catholic education for them.”

For more information on Catholic schools in the Diocese of Harrisburg, visit www.GoCatholicSchools.org.

By Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness

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