By SAMANTHA SMITH, Staff Writer | Published May 28, 2020
ATLANTA—This summer, Dr. Diane Starkovich will retire after 14 years serving as superintendent for Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Atlanta.
The Minnesota native officially decided to retire in February 2019. Since then, there have been major changes in the Atlanta Archdiocese, including a new archbishop and the shift to online learning caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. In March, the virus spread prompted students at the 18 archdiocesan and six independent schools to take virtual classes for the remainder of the semester.
Nevertheless, Starkovich has enjoyed her time serving Catholic schools in north and central Georgia. The years were filled with spelling bees, oratorical contests, National Blue Ribbon School awards, annual education banquets, hiring staff, graduations and more.
Starkovich said she loved the job every single day.
The superintendent of Catholic schools was one of the first positions filled by Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory when he became the shepherd of the Atlanta Archdiocese in 2005. Archbishop Gregory is now the archbishop of the Archdiocese of Washington.
“By God’s own grace, I was able to find Dr. Diane Starkovich, an accomplished educator and faithful Catholic,” said Archbishop Gregory. “She came to the archdiocese with experience, energy and a heart filled with love for children.”
Debbie Wheeler, schools program specialist for the office of Catholic schools has worked with Starkovich for eight years. She said Starkovich’s knowledge, professionalism and integrity have been a true blessing to the Archdiocese of Atlanta and the Office of Catholic Schools.
“I deeply respect and admire her,” said Wheeler.
Her love for education began in elementary school, where Starkovich had great experiences with two teachers that taught her for multiple years. She said she was attracted to a profession where she could make a difference.
Starkovich received her bachelor’s degree summa cum laude in elementary education with reading endorsement from the University of Minnesota in Duluth and her master’s degree summa cum laude in educational administration with mid-management endorsement from Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, Texas. She was a teacher for nine and a half years.
Starkovich was principal of St. Maria Goretti School in Arlington, Texas, a pre-kindergarten through eighth-grade school, from 1992-2003 and chaired accreditation teams throughout Texas. She previously served as principal of Holy Family School in Fort Worth from 1987-89 and Most Precious Blood School in Denver from 1990-92.
Starkovich served as associate superintendent in the Diocese of Fort Worth before her arrival in Atlanta in 2006.
In 2010, she received her Ph.D. in Catholic Educational Leadership Policy Studies from The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.
GRACE and accreditation
In 2008, Archbishop Gregory and Bishop J. Kevin Boland, now retired bishop of the Diocese of Savannah, founded GRACE Scholars, a nonprofit student scholarship organization in Georgia that helps to make Catholic schools more affordable.
“I remember lobbying with Pat Chivers (then communications director), going to committee meetings, testifying in sessions in front of our elected officials…and working with Frank Mulcahy (director of the Georgia Catholic Conference) to get legislation passed,” said Starkovich. “GRACE certainly changed the landscape, making our schools much more affordable for many families.”
In 2013, the Office of Catholic Schools and archdiocesan schools were awarded archdiocesan-wide accreditation through AdvancED, which focused on system thinking and practices.
While the principals have always been collaborative leaders, the 15-month process brought them closer and to a new way of working together, said Starkovich. The accreditation put into place best practices for education, including for budgeting, finances and a viability index, she said.
It also brought a K-12 curriculum, more academic accolades for graduates and National Blue Ribbon awards.
In the Archdiocese of Atlanta, 75% of schools have achieved the National Blue Ribbon School award. In 2019, Queen of Angels in Roswell, Immaculate Heart of Mary and Our Lady of the Assumption in Atlanta received the award. All three schools received the award for the second time.
“Our schools have rightly so developed a national reputation,” said Starkovich. “And I think a lot of it stems back to that systems-based accreditation.”
Connie Urbanski, associate superintendent of Catholic schools, has worked alongside Starkovich for six years.
“Diane truly cares about Catholic education and about the Archdiocese of Atlanta schools in particular,” said Urbanski. “Each decision she makes is guided by the desire to make sure that our schools remain accessible and affordable and that the schools do the best possible job at partnering with parents to ensure that their students gain a deep knowledge and abiding love for their faith.”
Immediate retirement plans include slowing down, traveling and spending time with family. When it’s safe to travel, she plans to visit her son and daughter-in-law in London and more of her family in Minnesota.
She has one commitment in September—speaking at a university about pastor and principal relationships. Starkovich said she’s been privileged to have great experiences and likes sharing what she’s learned and best practices.
Starkovich hopes that scholarships and programs will continue to help middle class and impoverished families afford a Catholic education.
A generation or two ago, schools were staffed by religious men and women who were paid a small stipend, explained Starkovich. Now that school faculty and staff are mostly lay employees, personnel costs, salaries and benefits increase tuition, making Catholic schools more expensive, she said.
Research shows that Catholic schools make a difference. As students mature into adults, “they become more active in our churches, they tithe at a higher level, they are strong citizens and exercise their right to vote,” said Starkovich. “It’s the kind of education that I wish everybody could have.”
Hiring employees who carry on the mission of Catholic schools is also important. Starkovich said seeing employees embrace the mission of the schools is inspiring.
“I’ve always said, ‘God takes good care of us and he’s brought us good employees to our schools,’” Starkovich reflected.
Working with the retiring superintendent “was also an educational experience for me in learning how to be creative, flexible and hopeful in the church’s educational mission,” said Archbishop Gregory. “I thank her from the heart for all that she did for the archdiocesan educational ministries. She is a friend and model of executive competence and a faithful servant of the church’s people.”