Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

Photo By Michael Alexander
Chris Reynolds, education subcommittee chairperson for the archdiocesan planning committee, fields questions from the audience at St. Theresa Church, Douglasville, last November.


Research On Catholic Schools Aired At Five Meetings

By STEPHEN O’KANE, Staff Writer | Published January 15, 2009

After two years of research, five consultative meetings were held in the archdiocese in late 2008 to share information gathered on ways to strengthen local Catholic schools, address financial challenges facing them, and identify places where there may be grassroots interest in exploring new schools.

The meetings, sponsored by a Catholic education subcommittee of the archdiocese, also offered preliminary financial recommendations and a recommended model for new schools considered the model most likely to make them successful and affordable.

Archbishop Wilton Gregory formed the 18-member subcommittee as part of the Archdiocesan Planning Committee to address increasing the availability and the affordability of Catholic education here.

Researchers from The Catholic University of America were brought in to assist in the process, particularly in collecting information and evaluating responses.

(R-l) Jeremy McWilliams is joined by his wife Melvina and their nine-year-old son Joshua during the Office of Catholic School’s first area consultative meeting. The McWilliams relocated from Dayton, Ohio, a year and a half ago. Photo By Michael Alexander

They surveyed school principals and teachers, met with archdiocesan clergy and conducted a meeting in October 2007 to identify key problematic school issues. Parishioners, clergy, school administrators and teachers took part in that meeting.

It brought to the surface many priorities. The high tuition cost for families, teacher salaries, effective planning for the feasibility of new schools, access for children across all economic strata, and maintaining high educational standards and Catholic identity were among the issues raised. Six months later they met to identify possible solutions to the problems.

CUA researchers also conducted several surveys. All parishes were surveyed last April to identify future needs for Catholic schools, while parishioners in 43 parishes were additionally surveyed during April and May to measure their interest in supporting new Catholic schools near them.

“The 43 parishes chosen for the school feasibility study were selected primarily by our two consultants from The Catholic University of America with some input from the education subcommittee,” according to Chris Reynolds, subcommittee chairman.

“The criteria was essentially to consider those parishes where current and forecasted population growth was favorable and where they did not currently have, or were not in proximity to, an existing Catholic school.”

Five Meetings Held

Beginning Nov. 13, a series of five meetings were held to disperse the information and preliminary recommendations and get feedback from the public.

A final report from The Catholic University of America is expected in April.

Reynolds, along with Karen Vogtner, co-chair and principal of St. John the Evangelist School in Hapeville, led the meetings, which each drew about 60 people.

“We have a … challenge here, which is incredible growth,” said Reynolds at the first consultative meeting, which was held at St. Theresa Church, Douglasville.

Reynolds shared some of the facts and figures regarding the growth in North Georgia. The Catholic schools in the archdiocese this year will educate 11,783 students, which is up from 11,660 last year.

This is a growth trend that has continued for the last few years, Reynolds said. He also mentioned that they found a 30 to 40 percent expected growth in the number of Catholics throughout the metropolitan Atlanta area over the next 10 years.

Certain areas of the archdiocese are growing more quickly than others, a point which was noted in each of the meetings. Populations in Gwinnett and Forsyth counties are among the leaders north of Atlanta, while Henry and Clayton counties lead the counties in the south in growth.

The meetings were scheduled in locations that represented each area of the archdiocese, including Prince of Peace Church, Flowery Branch, St. Pius X High School, Atlanta, St. James the Apostle Church, McDonough, and Transfiguration Church, Marietta, in addition to the Douglasville site.

“We really hit the corners of the archdiocese,” said Diane Starkovich, superintendent of schools, who was present at each of the meetings.

Before getting into exactly how the subcommittee suggested parishes move forward, Reynolds wanted to keep everyone up to date on what brought the planning committee to this point.

According to the subcommittee, the first year of the planning study focused on “developing the factual information that would serve as the foundation for identifying strategic initiatives and the overall mission, vision, values and critical success factors needed to support future growth.”

The second year emphasized supporting all future efforts, including the committee’s business, facilities, discipleship and education models.

Overall, the Archdiocesan Planning Committee and the education subcommittee were formed to “ensure that the church of North Georgia was prepared to meet the challenges that growth is likely to bring in the next 10 years.”

Archbishop Gregory and the education subcommittee chose The Catholic University of America to assist in their research because of their extensive and focused experience.

“Their expertise is Catholic education,” said Starkovich.

Len Defiore, Ph.D., and John Convey, Ph.D., both professors of education at CUA who also work in the strategic planning and regional consultation branch of the institution, were chosen to guide the research.

Starkovich named the pair as the “foremost researchers” in the field and said she felt blessed that they have been able to help with the daunting task of gathering and assessing Catholic school data and forecasts from parishioners and clergy throughout the archdiocese.

‘St. Catherine Of Siena Model’

Based on the research, the education subcommittee presented an extensive list of preliminary recommendations on how to move forward with the planning and construction of new schools.

One of the recommendations is to adopt a parish-based approach to establishing new elementary schools, a formula dubbed the St. Catherine of Siena model, since the Kennesaw parish school was successful in using that particular process.

“This is where we found the most success as far as models,” commented Reynolds.

Dr. John Convey, Elizabeth Ann Seton Professor of Education at Catholic University of America, Washington, DC, makes some points during the meeting. Photo By Michael Alexander

In this model, parishioners are encouraged to build support for a new school within the entire parish, not just with the parents of future students, in order to ensure a broad financial base needed to fund school operations and construction.

Parishioners are also asked to start small, keeping initial enrollment within a range no larger than pre-kindergarten to third grade and then adding one grade per year as the oldest students progress and the school grows.

The model also recommends using existing parish facilities for initial classroom space and allowing three years to design and plan a school while this first phase is occurring.

A modular building design is suggested, which would allow for additional facilities such as a gymnasium or a music room to be constructed as needed.

The recommendation is that one parish be responsible for financing the construction of the school. At the same time, the parish will need to continue to pay the school assessment tax that sustains the cost of existing archdiocesan Catholic schools.

In many cases, however, one parish may not be able to bear the cost of supporting its own elementary school.

One possibility suggested was for the parish to seek the assistance of another nearby parish community and pursue the project together.

Other preliminary recommendations include seeking support from religious orders involved in education to staff a new school, hiring a principal a year before the opening of a new school, receiving approval from the archbishop to operate as a Catholic school, and following the religion curriculum approved by the archdiocese as well as archdiocesan policies applying to Catholic schools.

Preliminary financial recommendations aired apply to existing Catholic schools and include: increasing school-based endowment funds; increasing archdiocesan school-related endowment funds; increasing levels of stewardship in the archdiocese; and reducing the operating subsidies required by two existing archdiocesan schools with special attention paid to communicating how and why the subsidies are reduced.

Prince Of Peace Church

Prince of Peace Church, Flowery Branch, positioned off Interstate 985 in Hall County, was atop the list of possible locations for a new school. The growing community ministers to many young families with children, and the idea of a school was not new to the parish.

“No surprises,” said Christa Cook, parish administrator for Prince of Peace. “We’ve been talking about this for a number of years.”

Cook said, however, that it was good to see their assumptions confirmed by the professional research, and they felt that the information presented in the meeting was well prepared.

Prince of Peace, which opened a preschool three years ago at full capacity, is coming together after the holidays to discuss its next step regarding the possibility of a future school.

“We’re just beginning to talk about this now,” said Cook. “We know the committee still has some work to do. … They were very encouraging to us.”

But planning the construction of new schools is just one part of the challenges explored at the meetings chaired by the education subcommittee. Another is getting the word out and keeping awareness high of the value to the whole community of Catholic education.

“Many people … are unaware of how successful these schools are,” said Reynolds.

Defiore also addressed the crowds at the meetings, sharing some of his observations.

“People are the drivers of Catholic identity,” he said, noting that keeping a strong Catholic identity is key to a successful school.

He also presented a list of characteristics that are associated with effective Catholic education. Included were an academic program with high standards, a religious education program that presents the teachings of the Catholic Church, and a strong sense of community among administrators, teachers, students, parents, priests and the entire parish community.

‘What’s The Take-Home Message?’

Those present at the meetings also viewed a tailor-made demographic overview for their section of the archdiocese, complete with the prospective number of children likely to attend a Catholic school in their area. It was these numbers, gathered from surveys, which led to the most discussion at the meetings.

“As we’re going around the archdiocese, we are collecting feedback,” Reynolds said.

Some interested parents seemed a little frustrated as they hoped to get a little more concrete information as to when and where another school will be built.

“I empathize with the parents who were a little frustrated,” said Starkovich. “But it takes time.”

“I was surprised by the level of enthusiasm but truly taken back by the sense of urgency in the demand,” Reynolds added.

“Parents around the archdiocese appreciate that we are being thoughtful in our approach to future school development, but they are growing a bit anxious. Many recognize that we have some wonderful schools in our community, and they’d like to have one a bit closer to home. I believe that enthusiasm will help make any potential new initiative successful.”

Andrea Berg, a parishioner at St. Theresa for four years, listens to the Nov. 13 presentation. Photo By Michael Alexander

One woman at the St. Theresa gathering raised her hand during the “Q & A” section of the meeting and asked bluntly, “So, what’s the take-home message?”

Reynolds answered that this is another step in a complex process of creating a successful school.

“We want to give you the firepower,” he said, telling them that it is now in the hands of the parishioners and clergy.

At the end of April, the education subcommittee, along with the other branches of the Archdiocesan Planning Committee, will wrap up its work. A full report will be assembled and presented to the archbishop with recommendations.

“Over the next four months, the education subcommittee will be working with the consultants from The Catholic University of America and the North Highland Group to bring our work to a conclusion,” Reynolds said. “Once the recommendations are made, it will be up to the archbishop to determine which will be accepted and acted upon.”

“I am hopeful that our attendees felt it was a meaningful use of their time,” he added about the consultative meetings. “I was particularly pleased to have had a number of priests and deacons take the time to attend. Their presence reinforced the importance of Catholic education for our children.”

For more information about the Archdiocesan Planning Committee and to view the research of the education subcommittee, visit