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In the Spotlight . . .

There's Probably an App for That

on Monday, 27 January 2014.


When I was asked to write a short essay on why Catholic schools are important in 2014, I, like any good educator, decided to cheat.  I asked Notre Dame Catholic School’s 8th Graders to do it for me.  I told them that a list of reasons was due the next day (“No, you don’t have to write in complete sentences this time (AND ONLY THIS TIME!); yes, it will be a grade…”).

Now, I know our kids.  They are faith-filled, joyful, kind, respectful, energetic, and very bright … but they’re teenagers (AHHHH!).  I didn’t know what to expect, though I figured soccer and basketball might be prominent among their responses.

They weren’t.


When I was growing up, parents worried about things like MTV and AOL Instant Messenger.  Those things are ancient history.  Between iPods, iPads, and iPhones, the very nature of identity – of “I” – has changed.  Facebook has co-opted the idea “friend.”  Twitter invites us to “follow.”  We shut out the real world with our headphones and bury ourselves in user-friendly, intuitive interfaces.

Such, at least, is what we “adults” grumble about (“Well, sonny, when I was your age…”).  The Church, however, is doing something quite different.  The Pope Tweets!  Our own Bishop Melczek is on YouTube (if you don’t believe me, Google it)!

But what does this have to do with why Catholic schools are so important today?  Why am I not writing about pre-marital sex and crime and gangs and the economy and terrorism and poverty and empty pews…?  On the other hand, why am I not talking about high standardized test passing rates and college matriculation and rigor and discipline and innovation?

Notre Dame Catholic Church and School Logo

Notre Dame’s 14 year olds (“AHHHH!  Teenagers!  Run!”), given complete freedom to talk about what is important to them, focused on these themes:  Faith, Family, Vocations, Morals, Service, Caring, Gratitude, Learning, Connectedness, and Future.

We don’t give our young people nearly enough credit.  They are more than aware of all the struggles and troubles in the world.  They know that something isn’t right.  They know that there is more out there.  There is a thirst for love and joy and connectedness.  There is an energy and a vibrancy and a vitality.  There is an honest innocence.  There is a yearning for Truth (note the capital “T”).

Our young people are telling us exactly what they need and value, and it happens to be the Gospel.  Today’s youth – the youth with iPhones and headphones and Facebook and Twitter (and maybe even the youth with intentionally messy hair, though I’m not sure about that) – are hungry for the Word of God, for a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, and for life-giving relationships with one another.

It’s time for us adults to plug-in, log-on, and get connected – or, dare I say, reconnected.  Catholic schools are important in 2014 not because there are troubles all around us.  Catholic schools are important in 2014 because there is hope all around us, and hope does not disappoint.

Benjamin Devin John Potts, Ed.M., is the Principal of Notre Dame Catholic School in the Diocese of Gary, Indiana. He is also a member of the Mary Ann Remick Leadership Program's eleventh cohort. For more information on the Remick Leadership Program, please click here.

Notre Dame Catholic School is a ministry of the Notre Dame Catholic Community that fosters learning through an unsurpassed faith-based education and prepares young people for extraordinary lives. For more information on Notre Dame Catholic School, please click here

Graduates Earn Recognition for Contributions to Communities as Teachers

Written by William Schmitt on Monday, 08 July 2013.

Latest Exemplars in ACE Teaching Fellows Receive Honors, Awards

Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE) sends talented young teachers to serve children in under-resourced Catholic schools around the country, and these caring educators pursue many initiatives during their formation.

At conferences and at the local, state, and even national levels, ACE Teaching Fellows participants are being recognized for their outstanding work in (and out of) the classroom and the gifts they bring to a school and community.

Below we celebrate some of the accomplishments of our ACE 18 graduates:

Dominic Fanelli received two outstanding awards during his time teaching middle school math at Sacred Heart of Jesus School in Baton Rouge. In the spring of 2013, he was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to study in Germany for the upcoming year. Additionally, Dominic was honored by his faculty in receiving the Brotherhood Award. Voted on by the teachers, the recipient is someone who treats others with respect, exhibits integrity, and is involved in the community. “This was an honor for me to receive and a highlight of my two years at Sacred Heart,” said Fanelli.

Maura Shea, who served as a high school English teacher at Ascension Catholic in Plaquemine, LA, was voted High School Teacher of the Year for the Parochial Schools in Ascension Parish, Louisiana. The award is sponsored annually by the Knights of Columbus.

Students of Meghan McDermott, at Bishop Garriga Middle Preparatory School in Corpus Christi, Texas, voted her into the ranks of Teacher of the Week. That honor is bestowed regularly by a local radio station, 96.5 FM. “The radio DJ surprised me in my classroom, and they announced my name on the radio all week,” recalls McDermott regarding the salute she received in March 2013. “It was a very exciting event for the whole school, and all the kids loved hearing Bishop Garriga’s name announced throughout the week.”

Meaghan Crowley, ACE Denver, and Kevin Kimberly, ACE Memphis, were each awarded the Charles Redd Center K-12 Teaching Western History Award. This award is given for innovative lesson planning and teaching of lessons related to the American West. Meaghan and Kevin presented their award-winning lesson plans at the Western History Association conference held in Denver. Brent Modak, ACE Denver, in collaboration with the Library of Congress, also presented at this conference on the importance and implementation of primary sources in education.

Ann Marie Ferry, ACE Mission, presented a lesson at the 60th Annual Texas Conference for the Social Studies. She created a lesson in which students “examine the role of the Texas economy in the world.” Ferry, who taught middle school social studies and religion at St. Joseph School in Mission, Texas, explained that the lesson entailed “differentiated instruction, as well as extending and refining previous knowledge of the causal relationship between the geography of place and economic activity.”

In conjunction with ACE faculty member Lori Crawford-Dixon and ACE graduates Tara Carey, Jeannine DiCarlantonio, and Ann Ferrello, ACE Atlanta teacher Michele Monk presented at the Annual Convention and World Languages Expo. The group spoke on “K-5 Curriculum and Resources: An Adaptable Model for Instruction.” The presentation aimed to give K-5 foreign language teachers a set of units based on key themes, with accompanying course outcomes, a sample lesson plan and course calendar, and other resources.

Desiree Jerez was invited in May to make a presentation as part of Oklahoma City Archdiocesan Professionals Day. A teacher at St. Philip Neri School in Oklahoma City, Jerez introduced fellow educators to classroom management techniques found in books by Rick Morris and Doug Lemov. Her talk was titled “Quick, Easy, and Simple Changes that Increase Instruction Time.”

We congratulate these and all members of ACE 18 who will participate in ACE’s annual Commencement exercises on July 13, 2013 at the University of Notre Dame.

In the Spotlight: Brothers and Sisters of the 21st Century

on Friday, 14 June 2013.

DanRanschaertTeaserSummers for Dan Ranschaert and his classmates in the ACE Teaching Fellows program are packed with classes, Masses, and community life on Notre Dame's campus. During the rest of the year, as this New York Times article reveals, their dedication takes a different form.

Part II: In the Spotlight: Sr. Mary Paul and Signs of Hope

on Friday, 31 May 2013.

Read Part I: Sr. Mary Paul and the Grace of Growth

This past school year, enrollments grew for the third year in a row in Chicago Catholic Schools, ending a decades-long trend of decline. More importantly, much of the growth occurred in schools that serve the communities most in need, where steady enrollment can be the most challenging.

Sister Mary Paul McCaughey, Superintendent of Chicago Catholic Schools, credits the increase in enrollment to the leadership of principals and pastors, Archdiocesan donors, and organizations like the Big Shoulders Fund, which provides financial support for Catholic schools in under-resourced neighborhoods. In her view, a spirit of collaboration and a renewed sense of purpose have rallied these supporters in their efforts to make a Catholic education available and affordable for more students. By strategically coordinating support, the Archdiocese has kept schools available in the most challenged areas and accessible to the children who most need them.

Though growth is still modest, Sister Mary Paul calls these last few years “turning the ocean liner.” The increased enrollments act as indicators of a wider and more systemic transformation for Catholic schools – the entire ocean liner heading in a new direction.

In March of 2013, the School Board of the Archdiocese published a strategic plan to examine the success stories of the past three years and outline a plan to build on these examples. The plan suggests that leveraging strong leadership at the principal and pastor level, promoting best-practices for financial viability, and enhancing both Catholic identity and academic offerings have all been essential to renewing growth.

For example, the strategic plan shares the story of St. John Streamwood. Just a few years ago, the school struggled to serve its students, and in 2010 alone, enrollment fell by 28 students. This left the school depending on subsidy and loans at a time when the parish itself was challenged financially. However, with a new pastor and principal appointed to leadership positions, the school developed a strategic plan and revamped the budget with the help of a strong business manager. The principal worked with teachers to develop a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) curriculum, which centered on themes of ecology and stewardship of the earth. The school leaders decided to prioritize scholarship funding and sought help to improve their marketing efforts – both to enhance the schools reputation and to increase awareness of the school and its affordability.

As a result, enrollment increased from 188 in 2010 to 272 in 2013. In the same time period, the aid that St. John Streamwood receives from the Archdiocese decreased from $200,000 to $0.

For Sr. Mary Paul, schools like St. John Streamwood offers signs of hope – and clear blueprints for how to change the narrative in a struggling school. Furthermore, when the leaders of a school like St. John Streamwood share their story with colleagues across the Archdiocese, Sister Mary Paul says that she can see the hope sparked within educators, principals, and pastors. While they might have previously been lamenting their own challenges, she explains, they come to her and ask, “Do you think that I could do this too? Maybe God is calling me to do this.”

Sister Mary Paul explains that renewal becomes a real possibility for educators when they “see this modeled around them and know that there (will) be resources for them.” This transformation and renewal occur both in entire schools and in the spirits of the educators working within them. “I have seen these great sites that were ready to be shuttered – now flipped and turned around in the last three, four years, but I’ve also seen those who were just tired, who are deciding to be reenergized and to rediscover shared leadership.”

The strategic plan also illustrates a clear plan to attracting new and talented leaders, principals, and high-quality teachers to Catholic schools. Sister Mary Paul points to the number of young, lay educators finding vocations in Chicago’s Catholic Schools as a success to build on in future years and a testament to the power and grace present in the schools and the students themselves.

“I think that’s been a tremendous tribute to the schools where young couples are staying,” Sister Mary Paul explains, “and a tremendous tribute to ACE at Notre Dame with the Catholic School Advantage campaign.”

The Catholic School Advantage campaign, launched by the Alliance for Catholic Education in response to a 2009 Notre Dame Task Force, aims to improve educational opportunities for Latino students. In Chicago, Juana Sanchez Graber, Field Consultant for the campaign, works to help schools raise awareness in Hispanic communities, tailor their marketing and communications efforts, and utilize madrinas (and padrinos) programs to spread the word about school availability and build bridges into Hispanic neighborhoods and communities.

In the coming 2013-2014 academic year, the University of Notre Dame and the Alliance for Catholic Education will also send the first ACE Teaching Fellows community to Chicago, to help provide talented young teachers and future leaders to Chicago Catholic Schools.

For Sister Mary Paul, it’s an exciting partnership. “I’ve always had a great love for Notre Dame, and a respect for the ACE program,” she explains, “I had followed it for twenty years since its founding, and always had kind of a nagging ‘Why not Chicago? Why not Chicago?’ So to have it come to Chicago and in really such a vibrant way (…) I think it’s a tremendous opportunity for us.”

Much like the success of these past few years, in Sister Mary Paul’s view, the future of Catholic Schools in Chicago will continue to rely on renewing the entire system through strategic collaboration and belief in the big changes.

“I am deeply grateful to Fr. Scully for his vision - and to that whole ACE team, really -for continuing to wrap their services, not just around the individuals who they might be coming to influence, but to profoundly influence a system. So it’s a very powerful thing for me to see the engagement of our university, particularly through the ACE programs.”

Read Part I: Sr. Mary Paul and the Grace of Growth

In the Spotlight: Sr. Mary Paul and the Grace of Growth

on Friday, 17 May 2013.

Part 1

In February of 2008, Francis Cardinal George, O.M.I., appointed Sister Mary Paul McCaughey O.P. as superintendent of Catholic schools for the Archdiocese of Chicago. Since then, Sister Mary Paul has been working to write a story of hope, renewal, and grace for Chicago's Catholic schools.

At the time of her appointment, however, the narrative of Catholic schools in Chicago was dominated by decline, instability, and uncertainty. Despite the brilliance of a few beacons of hope, the big picture presented some serious challenges. For the most part, Catholic schools were struggling.

In 2008, Catholic school leaders in Chicago faced trends of declining enrollment and closing schools. Between 1984-2004 alone, there were 148 Catholic school closures in the city of Chicago. With a financial recession taking hold and rising costs hindering many students and families from paying tuition, the outlook for many of Chicago's Catholic schools was uncertain at best, especially for those schools serving students in poverty or in under-resourced communities.

In 2013, however – five years into Sister Mary Paul McCaughey's tenure as superintendent – that narrative has gradually started to change.

After plummeting for decades, enrollment has increased in Chicago Catholic schools for the past three years. To put that in perspective, the last time the Archdiocese had just two consecutive years of growth was in 1965.

"I think growth is a grace," says Sister Mary Paul, "We cooperate with God's grace in continuing to grow as students and as persons of service. Whether that's for the young people or the slightly older people who serve them, that's what energizes me. It's in the air."

A career educator and lifelong Chicago-area native, Sister Mary Paul graduated from Marian Catholic High School in the Chicago Heights area, an economically and ethnically diverse community just 30 miles south of downtown Chicago. She later returned to Marian Catholic High School to serve as both principal and president.

After an earlier stint as a principal, she thought that she might become a clinical counselor. However, she explains, "I found out kind of quickly that I had people who were complaining with twenty, twenty-four clients a week." She realized, "Why shouldn't we then try to change the system so we can have healthy people everywhere? Why not change the system?"

Sister Mary Paul describes discerning her vocation to be an educator and leader as a "gradual conversion." After successfully merging Sacred Heart Academy and Griffin High School in Springfield, Illinois, she had permission to pursue a PhD at the University of Chicago Theological Seminary. After only a year in the program, her community called her back to Marian, and she became principal and president there for the next 18 years.

"I thought I'd already done my duty to education while still young enough to do something else," she laughs, "but it turns out...God had another idea."

Trusting in the ability of the Catholic school system to adapt, Sister Mary Paul has worked to rally renewed efforts to bring a Catholic education to as many students as possible in Chicago. As Superintendent, Sister Mary Paul draws from both her 40 years of experience in education and her openness to new approaches in order to lead pastors, educators, Universities, and other community stakeholders in collaborating on plans for the future. "There's no greater thing than walking into a Catholic school and getting smacked with that feeling that everyone is on board with really wanting the best for one another," she says.

For Sister Mary Paul, reclaiming the narrative of Catholic education in Chicago will mean finding ways for educators and leaders "to challenge one another, to support one another, and to teach one another."

With a vision of trust and continuous improvement, Sister Mary Paul intends to build on the momentum of three consecutive years of enrollment growth. In that spirit, the School Board of the Archdiocese published a three-year strategic plan in March of 2013. The document highlights signs of hope from the past few years and outlines a plan to learn from and build on these successes in the future. The plan suggests a clear path forward for Chicago's Catholic schools, and though it is only the beginning, a new story of growth and grace is steadily taking shape in Chicago.

Read Part II of this story.