By GRETCHEN KEISER, Staff Writer | Published September 3, 2009
Diane Starkovich, superintendent of Catholic schools, says the two Catholic University of America researchers who just completed a report on the Archdiocese of Atlanta school system provided an invaluable national perspective through which to look at the situation here. At the same time, she said, the other, all-local members of the education subcommittee were vital, incredibly hard working and essential to the outcome.
“We were pleased and we were quite honored to get the services of The Catholic University of America. The two researchers are the foremost researchers on Catholic education in the country,” she said of John J. Convey, Ph.D. and Leonard DeFiore, Ph.D.
The local subcommittee on Catholic education, which CUA assisted, was the largest subcommittee in size in the archdiocesan strategic planning process and met twice a month for 20 months. It was chaired by Chris Reynolds, assisted by vice chairman Karen Vogtner, principal of St. John the Evangelist School in Hapeville.
“The membership and participation of the 18 members of the subcommittee was essential,” the superintendent said. “They worked hard. They did a lot of reading. They did a lot of discussing and meeting.”
“Eighteen volunteers left their jobs in the middle of the day … read material at night,” she recalled. “It was an awful lot of work. It was so affirming. It was a very worthwhile process.”
“It is our plan,” Starkovich said.
The education model subcommittee was asked to address the affordability and availability of Catholic schools in the archdiocese. In addition, Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory retained the Center for the Advancement of Catholic Education of The Catholic University of America to assess the needs of the schools, to develop a comprehensive plan as to how to use the resources in the archdiocese to meet those needs, and to identify future locations for new schools and opportunities to expand existing ones.
The report by the two CUA educators highly praised the archdiocese and said it was implementing “best practices” in various aspects of school funding, leadership and other areas.
The Catholic schools’ superintendent acknowledged that “it was very affirming” to hear.
“The archbishop and the people of the Archdiocese of Atlanta should feel very confident our schools are schools of excellence.”
She added, “That doesn’t mean there shouldn’t always be ongoing efforts of continuing excellence.”
The conclusion “was more than good. It was great. Now the real work begins. The implementation … falls back to the department involved.”
There were 33 recommendations from the education subcommittee.
Support For Schools Deserves ‘Tremendous Appreciation’
Discussing the report’s high praise for the archdiocesan-wide method of funding Catholic schools, she cited the “visionary leadership” that led to its creation in the administration of Archbishop-emeritus John F. Donoghue.
She said that parishes make a great sacrifice to sustain the school assessment and that the motivation to do so is the fact that Catholic schools are acknowledged to be the best way to pass on the Catholic faith to new generations.
“Catholic schools are the best and foremost manner in which we pass on our faith. In order to do that, the investment is huge,” she said. “That investment cannot go without tremendous accolades and appreciation.”
At the same time, she said “there are tremendous sacrifices by parents” to pay the tuition to send their children to Catholic schools and Catholic school employees make sacrifices to teach there.
The “mission-driven character of our employees” is a source of great pride for her, the superintendent said. Being a teacher in a Catholic setting “is a vocation.”
The archdiocesan financial model is held up as a best practice, she believes, because it asks families with children in the schools to pay as close to full tuition as possible and then creates a tuition assistance fund to help those who cannot cover the full cost. This spreads limited resources most economically and targets them only toward the families who are unable to pay the tuition.
At the same time, she said, there is a need for Catholics in general to be better stewards and better disciples in order to make all of the efforts of the Catholic community that are well done continue to flourish and grow.
It is a key component of the planning process that Catholics give more generously. The national average is that Catholics give an estimated 1 percent of their income to the church, she said.
Catholic schools were started when Catholic immigrants experienced discrimination in Protestant schools and in public schools, Starkovich said. Now Catholics are among the best-educated and most successful people in the United States.
“We hope giving levels would parallel this,” she said.
Report Includes New School Recommendations
The report also assessed a vast amount of data drawn from surveys and demographic studies, as well as from regional meetings in areas without Catholic schools where a need and demand for schools is present.
Building three new Catholic elementary schools and expanding an existing Catholic elementary school are among the recommendations of the study.
The subcommittee also recommended that the archdiocese adopt a parish-based approach to establishing new elementary schools and use a process in which schools open with no more than pre-K to third grade and add one grade per year as the school grows. Existing parish facilities would be used initially.
As for locations, the report recommends that a new school be built as soon as possible at or near Prince of Peace Church in Flowery Branch as a parish or inter-parish school to serve families in the northeast metro area; that a new school be built in three to five years through the collaboration of St. Theresa Church in Douglasville with other parishes or interested Catholics to serve the southwest metro area; and that a school be built in five to seven years through collaboration among St. James Church in McDonough with other parishes or interested Catholics to serve the southeast metro area.
And the study recommends that Queen of Angels School in Roswell, which opened in 1999, be expanded as soon as possible. The school was built to serve 500 students and has been at capacity since it opened.
The study also recommends the archdiocese continue to explore how to increase access to Catholic education in the Duluth area, the Cumming area, and the southwest deanery of the archdiocese.
Regarding these recommendations, Starkovich said, “The impetus for this (will be) local.”
“Those efforts will occur locally with discussion and fundraising. There are exploratory committees that have begun. I have met with all the committees, some more than once. We have given some assistance with plans, with salary scale and benefits. They are at varying degrees (of exploration).”
The economic situation in the United States will impact the time frames that were envisioned in the report, she said. “I think if this would have been done a year from now, the time frame might have been a little longer.”
Before any new schools are built or a school expanded, the planning process is detailed and will be looked at from various perspectives, including by the Office of Catholic Schools and the facilities and business models of the strategic planning process, she said.
“Schools need to be viable. It is a big venture,” Starkovich said. “It is an important planning process. We cannot have a school just for this generation. It has to be this generation and the next and the next.”
Benefactors and parents, as well, need to be confident that a new school will succeed and last, she said. So, any new facility will take time to arrive, and when the planning process gets the green light and a facility is approved, the founding principal has to be on board for a year before the school opens.
Her enthusiasm for what the report says is also balanced with the awareness that it is full of challenges. But she is eager to meet them.
“I look at this and think—what an effort. … Look at what these 18 people did. Now let’s see how much of it we can get accomplished.”