"Not on my watch."
Test scores and enrollment will not decline, nor will the Catholic identity be curtailed in Catholic schools across the archdiocese, assure the 41 new elementary school principals as they embark on building up the Church through the schools and pupils entrusted to their care.
The majority of the new principals are replacing those who opted for an early retirement package offered by the archdiocese this year.
Last week, CNY met with four of the 41 new hires at the New York Catholic Center in Manhattan.
They are, in Manhattan, Nicholas Green, 32, Incarnation; Tarik Hyman, 38, St. Elizabeth’s, and Caroline Sliney, 28, Blessed Sacrament; and, on Staten Island, Tara Hynes, 46, Our Lady of Good Counsel.
Protecting children is paramount to being a credible principal in 2015, according to Mrs. Hynes. She had served since 2004 as chairperson of the English department and teacher at Msgr. Farrell High School on Staten Island.
“One thing that happens way too often is that children grow up too fast. What makes Catholic school different is that we are educating the whole child—intellectually, spiritually…This world could be a scary place for some of our children—not only for what is out there on social media, but also the fact that many of our parents work and children are home alone. They have added responsibilities and, in a world that could entice them on to the dangerous side, it’s important for us to protect that.”
Mrs. Hynes recalled with great affection and admiration how the Catholic schools of her childhood were there for her, particularly after the deaths of her parents—her father passed away when she was in the third grade, her mother when she was a junior in high school. “There was community and that community saw us through, but also continued. I still am in contact with people who were my parents’ friends, and I address them as ‘Mr. and Mrs.’… I don’t think I would have had that in any other place.”
Principals are called to be “servant leaders,” Hyman said. At the same time, “you’re always a teacher.” Prior to this post, he was the middle school dean and taught seventh grade at St. Ann School in Manhattan. Hyman said he is an advocate of school mentorships.
Having been told by students, “‘You’re like a father to me,’” has meant so much to him throughout his teaching career as he was raised by a single mother and a grandmother. Just as he discovered many male educators throughout his childhood years in Catholic school were effective father figures, to the students of today, “I feel like I’m their actual family member.’”
School should feel like family, followed Ms. Sliney. “You’re at home when you’re at school,” she said. Before becoming principal there, she had served as assistant principal at Blessed Sacrament since 2013.
Ms. Sliney gives high marks to the parish’s “phenomenal” administrator, Father John P. Duffell, for his dedication to the parish school. Observing the power that can come from a vibrant parish and school community, and the difference that can make in early childhood education is remarkable, she said, as is “watching the way that Christ can come alive in a young family.” As a school with a large and thriving early childhood program, she said, “I’m very proud to see the way our families are being evangelized through that faith experience.”
In regard to Catholic identity, human formation “has to be our mission,” Ms. Sliney said. “Faith is ‘caught, not taught,’” she added.
Green had just moved to New York from Tennessee 10 days earlier, where he served as principal of Memphis Catholic Middle and High School since 2012. “I had a great experience, but was ready for a new challenge,” he said. “New York seemed like a place where some really great things were happening.”
The stakes are higher for Catholic schools, Green said. “We’re part of the formation and the preparation for something beyond high school, college, life. We’re trying to help form these children to grow closer to God and to return to God. We’re trying to not just make scholars out of them, but saints.”
Assembled with the four was Steven Virgadamo, the archdiocese’s associate superintendent for leadership. According to him, the homework has been done to adequately prepare for the inevitable generational shift in leadership that has become a reality this year. Nearly seven years ago, with the help of benefactors, the Curran Catholic School Leadership Academy was established. Virgadamo, the executive director, describes the academy as the equivalent of a naval war college for school leaders.
Fifty years ago, a sense of mission and identity in Catholic schools was taken for granted because the teachers came from the same religious community, Virgadamo noted. Thirty years ago, as the number of religious in the schools diminished, a new generation of lay school leaders emerged who were mentored and formed by members of the religious community who staffed the school. Today, programs such as the Curran Catholic School Leadership Academy are needed, he said, to prepare school leaders to create the same kind of unified school culture that ultimately becomes the charism of the school.
More than 200 individuals from across the country applied to be a Catholic school principal in the archdiocese for this year, Virgadamo noted. Many cited the opportunity to be part of the team history will remember as those who rewrote the script of Catholic schools from a declining system to one which is growing and flourishing, he added.
Dr. Timothy McNiff, archdiocesan superintendent of schools, said his gratitude to the retiring teachers for their years of service to their schools and students is “beyond a mere ‘thank you.’”
At a retreat held this month for the 41 new principals, he saw firsthand their enthusiasm, authenticity and eagerness to impart the Catholic faith in their schools this fall. “I know we’re passing the torch to the right people,” Dr. McNiff said.
It was at that retreat the principals themselves resoundingly devised their newly adopted mantra, “not on my watch.”
There, Dr. McNiff underscored to them “leadership is everything.”
“These schools need to see an adult who goes into that building every day and is wearing their faith on their sleeve,” showing clearly “what it means to be a good, Catholic citizen.”
“I want them to be comfortable in being able to fulfill that expectation, and I want them to be mindful, on a daily basis, that is an expectation,” Dr. McNiff said. “That’s the roadmap I’m asking them to follow.”