Anyone who has been paying attention to Catholic education in this archdiocese over the past six or seven years should at least be familiar with the term Pathways to Excellence, the strategic planning initiative for the Catholic schools in the archdiocese.
Pathways to Excellence, as you probably know, brought the Archdiocese of New York a regionalized school system with nine component regions across the archdiocese. Everyone involved, including Dr. Timothy McNiff, the superintendent of schools, would admit it was a big lift. That’s putting it mildly. There were a lot of decisions that had to be made, including some painful ones, so that the archdiocesan system could discover a new path to excellence.
Hard choices were made, including painful school closures, on more than one occasion. Again, not easy.
Looking back, though, Dr. McNiff is convinced that the right decisions were made, not just about the closures, but about enrollment and test scores and stabilizing a system that was in need of a clearly expressed vision that would find “the antidotes for what was plaguing us.”
When we spoke just a few minutes before Dr. McNiff stood before a room full of committee members who were set to begin charting the course for Pathways to Excellence II, it was with the benefit of hard-earned experience that he believes ultimately led to “tremendous success.”
A story on Page 3 of this issue tells how Catholic school test scores in the archdiocese are up, for the third year running, and not just internally but also in comparison to the numbers posted by the city and state public schools. He also says that enrollment in the system is continuing to stabilize. We’ll see what the actual numbers look like next month, but it would surprise me if they are not at least trending in a positive direction.
Dr. McNiff, in that story, also speaks about how difficult it can be for a large system like the New York Catholic school system to move the needle forward. Yet, I have the idea he thinks the significant steps the archdiocese has already taken give it momentum for the next push.
“What is our image in the larger New York area today than a decade ago?” he asked. “We’re in an immensely better place.”
The original Pathways to Excellence held up for half a dozen years, but Dr. McNiff thinks a tighter timeframe of three years is just about right for the second phase. In fact, he told me that the school system would most likely be operating in a “perpetual strategic planning mode now,” with a three-year window as the optimal timeframe.
“We’re learning so much from this new regionalization process that I think giving it a three-year run and then revisiting what’s good and what can be improved is the way to go,” he said.
Sixty or 70 educators, pastors, and experts in finances and fund-raising were seated around tables in Dillon Hall on the evening of Sept. 21 when Dr. McNiff and others from his office spoke about the new Pathways to Excellence process. At each of the tables were the members of various “domain” committees in Catholic identity, leadership, enrollment management, student services, governance, teaching and learning, and communications.
They were asked to begin raising issues for consideration in the next strategic planning process. The committee work is to be concluded by February, a tight timeframe that was received positively by one of the co-chairs of the group I sat in on.
Robert Billings, a sixth-year principal at Our Lady of Refuge School, a regional school in the Bronx, and a co-chair of the governance committee, later told me that shorter timeframes are “classic strategic planning.”
“I like the short turnaround,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be that comprehensive if you come back in three years.”
He said he considers himself a fan of the original Pathways to Excellence, and said he doesn’t know if people truly understand how much was accomplished from administrative and financial standpoints while dealing with new curriculum standards at the same time. “You have to give Dr. McNiff credit,” he said.
A neat note about this launch is that the Superintendent of Schools office is also debuting a webpage dedicated to collecting feedback from key constituencies. You can find it at https://catholicschoolsny.org/about-us/pathways/