Catholic educators gather at B.C. to share innovative ideas

While school is out for the summer, principals and faculty members at Catholic schools throughout the country returned to the classroom to discuss methods to improve Catholic education and make it more available to needy students.

At the Selected Programs for Improving Catholic Education (SPICE) conference, held June 27-29 at Boston College, educators came together to share programs that have worked in their own schools so that others may replicate them. This year’s conference was entitled “Catholic Schools for Children and Youth in Poverty”

“Schools matter. Excellence matters… we need to tell the Catholic school story,” said National Catholic Education Association (NCEA) president Michael Guerra, who acted as conference moderator.

"You have to have a little vision, a little energy, and you have to be a little tenacious," stated Steve Perla of the Parents Alliance for Catholic Education (PACE).

To “get a fair share of state funds,” Catholic schools must establish good relationships with their districts… all federal money goes through the district first, Perla said.

He urged those who attended to apply for direct funding from their state’s Department of Education; to speak to superintendents in urban areas who, under Title I of the No Child Left Behind Act, have a certain amount of money set aside for private schools; to work with a consultant to collect data on the number of children living in poverty in their area; and to form coalitions with groups who have similar interests.

Sister Dale McDonald, a Sister of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary and NCEA director of public policy and educational research, urged audience members to familiarize themselves with funds available through federal programs, such as child nutrition programs, the education rate for discounts on telecommunication services and the No Child Left Behind Act.

James Miller, of the Catholic Schools Foundation in Boston, spoke of the important values Catholic schools instill in students, such as charity and helping others, which the Catholic Schools Foundation relies on to provide aid to Catholic schools.

While acknowledging that contributions to his foundation are down, in part because of the sex abuse crisis and the economy, he was hopeful that Catholics would give again and said they just need new reasons to do so.

They need to see what he has seen in poor urban Catholic schools where the children, who come from single-parent families on welfare, collect loose change to send to people in impoverished parts of the world, such as Haiti.

"Catholic schools have always done so well in teaching the whole person,” he emphasized. “You need to get people into your schools so that they can see the stairs that have been worn thin by generations of Catholics.”

"There are philanthropists out there who are interested in Catholic education," said Jeff Thielman, director of development at the Cassin Foundation. His organization recently paired up with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to fund the building of schools that follow the Cristo Rey model to serve economically disadvantaged and immigrant students in urban areas.

The Cassin Foundation believes that to revitalize Catholic education, new schools have to be built, he said. The Cristo Rey school model, where students work in the business community to cover the costs of tuition, has become increasingly popular in many dioceses.

NCEA’s Michael Guerra called on participants in the symposium to help needy students to “get the power that others have.”

"What we are doing is the Lord's work," he said.

"I've come to the conference to learn about how children serve other children in impoverished areas, and I want to take that information back and try it at our school," said Margie Butler of the San Xavier Mission School on the Tohono O'Odham Native American Reservation in Tucson, Ariz.

She said her school used fundraisers, and contributions from foundations and individual benefactors to increase security, reduce classroom overcrowding, renovate the playground, eliminate drainage problems and build a technology lab and science/art lab.

A team from Elizabethport Catholic School in Elizabeth, N.J., explained to attendees how their school became a state-of-the-art, technology-based institution. The school won the SPICE Award for Excellence in 1999 and 2003.

Students at the K-8 school are taught how to use the keyboard in the first grade, and by the time a student reaches grade five all his assignments are completed on computer. Internet access is available in every classroom and teachers make use of multimedia technology to present lessons to students.

There are 165 computers for the 192 students at the school. Class size is small and class makeup is not based on the age of the student, but on his or her ability in the subject area.

Since these innovations began seven years ago, test scores and student motivation at the school have dramatically increased. After two-years, the average second grader progressed from the 35th to the 47th percentile in reading comprehension. This is not a typical school,” said Dolores Kulesa, a staff member representing the school.

CNS materials contributed to this report.