Reading, ’Riting and Regionalization could be the school theme of 2014- 2015.
Regionalization, which began in the archdiocese two years ago, is the realignment of most Catholic elementary schools into nine separate sectors. Each Catholic school region is a separate, nonprofit educational corporation chartered by the New York State Department of Education.
“We’re extremely pleased, after the first year, of where we are with the whole regionalization plan,” said Dr. Timothy J. McNiff, superintendent of schools for the archdiocese.
And there’s more good news from this past year to help kick off the new school year: “We didn’t close an elementary school this year.”
“I’m confident—but it’s to be seen when we open our doors—our enrollment, for the first time in many, many years—over a decade—is going to go up in our archdiocese,” he said.
“To see those two things happen after one year of regionalization is very encouraging,” Dr. McNiff added.
A two-tiered membership corporation governs the schools in a region: the cardinal, vicar general and chancellor are above the line. Directly below is the board of trustees, which includes clergy and laity. All regional board members are supported by a regional office, through the Office of the Superintendent and Office of Parish Finance. A business manager/corporate secretary is entrusted with the day-to-day operations of the region, with oversight provided by the board.
Dr. McNiff commended the respective boards for their diligent work in disseminating the proper guidance for the schools. “It should come as no surprise, the thing that they really needed to take ownership of quickly is the financial responsibility of these schools,” he said.
“As we all know, the schools that we’ve lost weren’t because of the quality of education occurring; it was financially based. We’ve seen almost immediate improvement in the financial oversight of these schools.”
The superintendent credits a better budgeting process as a result of the boards’ participation. He also cited the success of the boards’ subcommittees. He anticipated even more engagement, over time, through the subcommittees.
Among those subcommittees is one that addresses the adherence of Catholic identity. A Catholic identity assessment tool, which every school completes and submits to the board, identifies all the school is doing in conjunction with Catholicism.
“One of the other keys to the success of regionalization, and that complements all of the boards’ efforts, is to give them the financial wherewithal to keep the schools going,” Dr. McNiff said.
“To that end, this plan recognizes many schools in these regions still do not have a balanced budget. And that’s a function of, we don’t charge a tuition that covers the true cost. We recognize and we accept that. This is parochial education—not private education,” the superintendent said.
“One of the beauties of our plan,” he continued, “is that all the stakeholders in this archdiocese—which would not only include the cardinal but the pastors and donors—are contributing more money to sustain these schools and help with those school deficits that still remain.”
A parish assessment at every parish is one way the pastors are contributing, Dr. McNiff added. “If they have a closed school building they are renting to an outside agency, some of those rental proceeds come to support scholarships for our regionalization plan.”
Although the “true cost” varies from region to region, on average the cost to educate a student in an elementary school of the archdiocese is between $6,800 and $7,500, according to the superintendent. “Our average tuition right now hovers around $4,500,” he said.
An essential component of regionalization is reinvestment, which includes reallocating current resources back into Catholic education while identifying and securing additional funding. The goal is a system of strong, accessible, affordable Catholic schools, owned by every parish, supported by every Catholic, available to every child.
While Pathways to Excellence—the strategic plan designed to ensure a vibrant, sustainable Catholic elementary school system in the archdiocese, both now and in the future—“has a heavy emphasis on governance and finance, it’s just not exclusively that,” the superintendent said.
“I think we’ve done a wonderful job in continuing to find terrific leadership in our schools, i.e., the principal. We have reprioritized our resources here to make sure professional development for teachers and principals has stayed current.”
Strategic marketing efforts have ensured that the “great story” of Catholic education across the archdiocese is being better told to prospective parents and to the community at large. “We have professionalized those efforts in a way that I think most dioceses in the country would be envious of.”
To drive home his point, Dr. McNiff said “a before and after” look at printed marketing materials “would be like comparing a freshman team with a varsity team.”
Digital advertising and the Internet are among other mass marketing tools. Expertise in the Catholic schools’ marketing department along with having marketing specialists in each region all promote Catholic education. “Families are now understanding and learn better about our schools, and how to enroll,” he said.
A 24-hour bilingual hotline (646-794-2885) is available for parents who are looking for a Catholic school for their children. Utilizing a customer-service approach, it connects directly to information on the education website, buildboldfutures.org.
Parents can also read all about what is happening and when at Catholic schools through a quarterly newsletter designed specifically for them from Dr. McNiff himself.
Dr. McNiff also touted “Touring Tuesdays,” which allow prospective parents to experience firsthand the benefits of a Catholic education for their children. Now in its second year archdiocesan-wide, the universal open houses, scheduled periodically throughout the academic year, allow parents interested in kindergarten through eighth grade or in early education programs the opportunity to meet principals and teachers and see classrooms in action.
As another nod to New York’s Catholic school system, Dr. McNiff referenced one of the key initiatives of Mayor Bill de Blasio, that of improving the early childhood programs in the city. “He knew that the Catholic school system had to be a significant player in that,” the superintendent said.
“And it goes well beyond just our capacity for space,” Dr. McNiff continued. “It’s because we have a tradition of providing wonderful pre-school education to children in this city.
In that vein, “we have partnered with the city to ensure as many 4-year-olds are being properly taken care of this September.”
To date, 47 schools of the archdiocese are providing universal pre-k for this academic year, benefiting a preliminary 3,200 students. “That number is probably going to increase by the time we open our doors,” he said.
For a list of schools in the archdiocese offering free universal pre-k programs, and to download an application, access buildboldfutures.com/upk.html.
The website will also keep parents and students in the know about the who, what, when, where, why and how of many other matters related to Catholic schools in the archdiocese.
As a good way to start a new school year, the superintendent told a story that has both a happy ending and a happy new beginning.
“We were in a tremendous state of flux five years ago,” Dr. McNiff said. “Because of the collegiality that occurred among so many people in this archdiocese, we not only created a new vision, but we implemented it.”
As a result, “there’s a renewed sense of confidence for Catholic K-12 education,” he said.
To the parents of school children of all ages, the superintendent says, “We feel blessed to again have an opportunity to partner with families and do what I believe is one of the more important things that can be accomplished—to educate a child in a religious setting.”
For that partnership, he thanks the parents and, in cooperation with them, assures “we’re once again going to make magic this year” for the youngsters.