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Education Summit looks for ways to strengthen Catholic schools

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Educators had to look at some hard truths about the future of Catholic schools at an Education Summit hosted by the diocesan Department of Catholic Schools.

About 170 stakeholders from area Catholic schools and colleges gathered at Niagara University on Nov. 10 to collaborate on ideas to strengthen the Catholic schools.

Father Matthew Foley, OFM Conv., president of St. Francis High School in Athol Springs, talks about findings in his table discussion during the Education Summit held Nov. 10 at Niagara University. (Photo by Nicole Dzimira)

Guest speaker Dr. Kevin Baxter of the Alliance for Catholic Education at the University of Notre Dame, and Dr. Timothy Uhl, diocesan secretary for education, did a deep data dive to look at enrollment trends through the decades, then the principals, board members and principals looked at some issues their schools faced and discussed possible solutions.

Uhl talked about the trends of local Catholic schools, while Baxter told of the national picture. Most schools have been seeing a downturn in enrollment, difficulty retaining teachers, and tight budgets. (see Educators)

In breakout sessions, the guests were asked four questions: How energized are the students at your Catholic school? How mission-driven are your teachers? How connected are your school parents? and How close is the relationship between your school and parish?

Most said their kids are very energetic and excited to see friends and teachers when they arrive. One school said that the culture – the way the teachers welcome the students and treat them – will set the energy levels for the day. A couple schools want to channel that energy into productive ways.

When asked about how mission-driven the teachers were, there were mixed feelings. Some thought it was long-time teachers who best understood the mission, others saw young teachers eager to take on their role, but could not afford to work at the school due to student debt.

Also mixed was parent involvement. Some schools found parents to be micro-managing their children, others saw parents wanting teachers to handle all aspects of education. (No homework requiring parental help.) Some parents are more engaged when children are younger and less so when the kids become more self-reliant. One school found parents who are interested in family events, but not Church events, which makes one wonder if they want a private school, rather than Catholic school.

A second round of reflections looked at best practices. Some suggestions included having long-term families mentoring newer families, creating frequent touch points with teachers to determine what practical support they need, more involvement from parish priests such as greeting students at the beginning of the day and eating lunch with them. Someone suggested forming a children’s choir to get parents back into the church for Mass.

Concrete ways to improve the religious experience for kids include getting involved in Mass and holding retreats. St. Gregory the Great started a House System, taken from the Harry Potter series, where students, teachers, and board members are all attached to houses that earn points for positive behavior. The system drives students to participate in parish life. St. Greg’s saw participation in its youth ministry program go from 40 students to 87.

Dr. Kevin Baxter, keynote speaker at the Education Summit, presents a slideshow of national trends in Catholic school enrollment. (Photo by Nicole Dzimira)

Other suggestions included helping new teachers earn their master’s degrees, creating more family-centered schools, and even lengthening the school day so students could go to Mass every day, there would be more teaching time, more time to help struggling students, and time for extra programs. There was much reaction after that last suggestion.

Bishop Michael W. Fisher thanked those who attended, during what he called a “critical time” for our diocese.

“It’s good that we come together as educators, administrators, teachers, trustees – those who are committed to the Catholic education mission of our Church,” Bishop Fisher said.

He went on to say the saddest thing he had to do as bishop was celebrate the last Mass at a closing school.

This event was the first education summit the diocese had seen. Those who participated seemed to like it.

“I thought today was wonderful. It was really a good experience for us to get together and meet new people. I met a variety of people from business managers to the different priests from different schools. It was really nice. I think we all gained something from it,” said Principal Maria Wangler of Christ the King School in Snyder.

The school is currently trying to build up a children’s Mass, where once a month the students would take an active part in the parish Mass by doing the readings and bringing up the gifts.

“We’ve been talking about it, and it’s been reiterated again at our table. We’re going to take that and try to get more students at Mass on the weekend,” Wangler said.

Principal Ted Luckett of St. Gregory the Great School in Williamsville plans to bring back some of the problem-solving strategies discussed at his table back to St. Greg’s

 “I think the event provided us with a lot of information,” he said. “We had to look at some very hard truths, but also solutions to those hard truths, and it allowed us to grow together as a faith community, but also within our school communities and our parish communities. It gave us things to look at, but it also gave us hope. The most important thing I took out of today is hope.”

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