Thursday, January 22, 2009

Catholic Academy to Open at OLG Site in September


By Patricia Adams

In the midst of 14 catholic school closings announced by the Brooklyn-Queens Diocese last week, supporters of Catholic education in one Howard Beach School can rest easier. Although the parish school of Our Lady of Grace (OLG) will close at the end of the school year, a Catholic academy at the same site will open in September 2009.

OLG Principal Barbara Kavanagh says the main difference is the structure of governance at the school. “The Academy will be run by the principal and a Board of five Lay Directors,” says Kavanagh, “with each with lay professional having expertise in diversified fields.”

In a release by the Diocese of Brooklyn set forth by Bishop Nicholas A. DiMarzio in a “diocesan wide strategic planning process” a Diocesan Reconfiguration Committee (DRC) has returned a list of 29 regional proposals to “ensure the long term vitality and strength of Catholic Schools in the Diocese of Brooklyn, the role of the pastor and parish priest will take on a whole new meaning under the intense project to revamp the way Catholic Schools are administered to and operate.

According to Rev. Kieran Harrington, “This is a process. Every school in the diocese will be moving in the same direction over the next five years. In reviewing the schools,” Rev. Harrington said, “everyone is in a different place in the queue.”

Father Harrington confirmed Kavanagh’s understanding concerning the primary difference between the traditional parish school and an academy-- it lays within the structure of governance and administration that is essentially is being re-imagined. Under the newly proposed governance system, the pastor will be responsible for the spiritual welfare of the school and his parish.

The principal’s responsibilities will rest with education and the professional development of teachers. “Spiritual welfare is the competence of priests and education is the competence of principals,” Rev. Harrington said, “neither of these people should be concerned with finances or duties outside their competence.”

The administration of finances, governing salaries, marketing and other administrative functions will now fall on a Board of Lay Directors, comprised of five professional individuals within the community who will volunteer their time in administering the needs of the school which fall outside the realm of religion and education.

“Our sense is that in Howard Beach, many people have been very successful in building business,” said Rev. Harrington. “These are professional people who have demonstrated though personal venture that they have the tools to succeed.”

“Not everyone has all the components,” Rev. Harrington further explained. “Empowering professional lay people from the community, allowing principals and teachers to focus on education and priests on spirituality, are all part of the plan to create long-term viability for Catholic education.”

Preparing for Academy Status

OLG was one of five area schools invited to participate in a pilot program to attain academy status. One prerequisite of the program was to complete a Catholic Identity Assessment designed by the Diocese to evaluate the visible signs that make OLG uniquely Catholic.

Although the assessment had a survey design, the intent behind the project was to establish cross-section views of parents, faculty and staff as to the factors present that contribute to an overall description of the Catholic character at OLG.

As an academy the school would still follow the guidelines of New York State and of course, the rigor of religious education would not be diminished. “The reason we were chosen for this program is because our school and parish community has a very strong Catholic identity,” said Barbara Kavanagh.

The new academy, for which a name has not yet been chosen, will still face the challenges unique to them which include a declining enrollment and a projected financial deficit for the coming year. “We have every confidence that we will be able to make the new governance work for us,” Kavanagh maintains.

But in addition to what remains the obvious goal - to maintain the strong Catholic character - Kavanagh stresses the need to also feature other educational components entitled to children in public school. “The value of Catholic education as a component of the Catholic faith is undeniable,” she said, “but there are other things which need to be stressed. The public needs to be aware that the differences in Catholic education are not focused solely on the Catholic religion.”

In support of the obvious desire to point out equally important educational differences Kavanagh has much to say on the inclusion of support services in Catholic schools. “Support services available to Catholic school students are exceedingly limited. We need language programs from K-8. Help with homework after school, tutoring and a place for play and organized sports programs. Children with special needs should have the option of a Catholic education.” Kavanagh also want to be far more inclusive of arts programs within the curriculum.

The explanation of other key differences rests in several factors, one of which is the overall average cost to educate a Catholic school student as opposed to a public school student. According to Kavanagh, the cost per child for a Catholic school is roughly $4,000 per student.

In a report issued by the Department of Education on school based expenditure reports the cost of a public school education per student can range anywhere from $12,535 for a General Education student to $42,975 for Special Education students. While some may quip that this is an “apples to orange comparison” the merit of recognizing the difference is imperative to Catholic school survival, according to Kavanagh.

“We have consistently proven that the level of education at our schools, as measured by mandated state testing, carries a higher ranking in NYS ELA and math test results.” Kavanagh’s point is that in some cases, for what amounts to a fraction of the cost, students with Catholic school educations are still outperforming their public school counterparts.

“The bottom line is that we have to move ahead, with Diocesan support, to preserve the Catholic school education for the generations to come," said Kavanagh. "No child should be denied a Catholic education, whether their needs be defined by enrichment or remediation. Howard Beach and the community of Our Lady of Grace are fortunate to have been offered the chance to act as a beacon in this crucial process.”

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