The Highest Level of Support for a School Community
The overseers of a school—a parish, diocese, or board of directors—can provide tremendous assistance to a school community by facilitating unique collaborative opportunities to strengthen all aspects of the operation of a school. It is not uncommon for leaders of thriving Catholic schools to credit supportive pastors, bishops, superintendents, and board members for providing essential help in key areas—especially recruiting and fundraising.
But the opposite is also true. Unsupportive overseers can weaken and even sabotage the success of a school. That’s why school leaders and overseers must always strive to build and strengthen relationships with each other—and never lose sight of their mission of serving families and the Church. The best relationships are those where roles and responsibilities are understood—and subsidiarity is respected.
Subsidiarity is a principle of Catholic social teaching requiring that decisions be made at the lowest level of an organization as possible, so that decision makers are as close to the individuals who are affected by their actions as possible. Regarding the education of children in Catholic schools, the lowest level decision maker is the parent, followed by the teacher, followed by the school leader, followed by the overseers of the school. It is critical that all members of a school community understand how subsidiarity informs their relationships with each other. This means that:
Parents provide for their children’s spiritual, physical, emotional, and intellectual growth at home. They must model healthy habits, enforce discipline, and prepare children to respect the authority of their teachers. They should give teachers the opportunity to understand concerns and resolve conflicts before going “over the head” of the faculty to air grievances with the school leader.
Teachers set the day-to-day priorities and activities of the classroom. They must communicate with parents about what they observe during the school day and how children can be better supported at home. They should keep the school leader apprised of potentially problematic situations relating to students, families, and other teachers as they develop, and they should share concerns about the overall operation of the school with the school leader and only involve overseers as a last resort.
School leaders advance the mission of the school by making all major operational decisions, including hiring teachers, recruiting families, managing the curriculum, and resolving conflicts. They should address problems with members of the school community in a timely manner. It is critical that they apprise the overseers of incidents and trends that undermine the mission of the school.
Overseers provide the highest level of review and decision making for a school. They examine benchmarks (enrollment data, financial statements, student test results, etc.), approve major projects, and supervise the work of the school leader. They should provide clear expectations and feedback to the school leader without micromanaging his or her work or otherwise interfering with the day-to-day operations of the school.
The principle of subsidiarity—and its application within a school community—should be established in writing and reinforced on a regular basis. School leaders should include guidelines for teachers and parents in an easily accessible handbook; pastors, bishops, and board members should include them in by-laws. School leaders should use back-to-school nights, newsletters, and other opportunities to emphasize the importance of subsidiarity. Overseers should take the time to have candid discussions with school leaders about what they should expect from the relationship, and they must be honest about past challenges and open to making changes that are in the best interests of the school.
Governing with Integrity
The overseers of a Catholic school must never lose sight of their purpose: to govern and strengthen the school, consistent with the teachings of the Catholic Church, in the service of school families and the universal Church. It is critical that overseers govern with integrity. They must take the time to understand the state of the school as it actually is, and take steps that they reasonably believe will strengthen the school.
Overseers should begin by collecting data from the last 5 to 10 years. They should review:
Total enrollment of families and students
Number of families and students that applied for admission
Number of families and students that left the school prematurely
Average net tuition (amount actually paid) per student
Survey results (especially Net Promoter Scores – see below)
School leaders should be in constant dialogue with parents and students throughout the school year to hear their perspective on what is going well and what needs to improve. This should be done in person when possible, but every channel—including phone and email—should be offered to parents because people differ in how they prefer to communicate.
In addition, schools should conduct an annual anonymous survey of parents that asks the same three questions every year:
On a scale of 0-10, how likely are you to recommend the school to a friend or family member?
What do you like the most about the school?
How can the school improve?
The first question is taken from the business world and solicits what is commonly referred to as the Net Promoter Score. It is one of the most common survey questions employed by businesses to monitor customer satisfaction over time. The advantage of using an 11-point scale as opposed to a simple Yes/No answer is that it is more likely to capture whether respondents are enthusiastic enough to promote the school within their personal network. Answers of 9 or 10 are the goal; they represent parents who are most likely to refer future families. Answers of 7 or 8 are considered neutral and are generally discarded. Answers of 6 and below signal that parents are at risk of leaving the school and even dissuading others from staying or joining. Schools should monitor the ratio of 9s and 10s to 6s and below, and work to improve that ratio year over year.
There are five main benefits to collecting data using this survey:
It gives schools a standard metric to track progress over time to better understand how well parents think their children are being served.
It motivates school leaders, staff, and teachers to constantly improve.
It alerts school leaders to problems that need to be addressed—this includes sensitive and serious problems that may not be revealed without the anonymity of a survey—and gives them something concrete to present to staff and teachers to initiate difficult discussions.
It alerts school leaders to perceived problems and provides opportunities to explain and clarify strengths of the school that may be misunderstood by some members of the school community.
Schools that perform well can use the data in their messaging and marketing materials for recruiting and fundraising.
Surveys should be conducted in the spring or summer so answers can be based on experiences covering most of the school year. Online surveys offer user-friendly formats that may increase participation and allow for easier, more accurate data collection, as compared to paper surveys.
It takes a courageous school leader to administer a Net Promoter Score survey every year. Most schools fear the results and shy away from such feedback and metrics. It is worth noting that not all complaints and suggestions are worthy of being addressed; those that would compromise the mission and culture of the school suggest a breakdown in the admissions process and highlight the importance of recruiting families and students who support the school’s goals.
Fulfilling Overseer Responsibilities
If the data signal weaknesses or problems, the school’s overseers must confront them head on. Specifically, they must ask: “What is our school not doing, that stronger schools—especially those with full enrollment—are doing?” One way to find out is by reading this Playbook, taking notes on ideas and approaches not being implemented, and then discussing the future of the school with the school leader. Overseers need to be willing to replace school leaders who lack the will, skill, or fortitude to do what is needed to rebuild a school.
Overseers who are serious about reversing declining enrollment need to set clear and realistic expectations of a school leader. This requires: (1) admitting problems, (2) supporting a school leader’s reasonable plan to address problems head on, and (3) holding the school leader accountable. A school leader who enjoys the support of overseers to make major changes to strengthen a school—including changes to the curriculum and faculty—should be required to show progress through regular updates. Overseers should be prepared to replace a school leader who fails to show considerable progress after two or three years.
At the same time, overseers must do their part. In addition to supporting the school leader, overseers should:
Promote the school within their sphere of influence. For example, pastors should have conversations with parents about their children’s education and allow school leaders to speak after Mass. Board members of independent schools should invite likeminded friends to open houses and other events.
Help raise money for the school. For example, pastors should introduce school leaders to parishioners who give generously to the parish. Board members of independent schools should include the school in their charitable giving; they should also help make connections for school leaders and invite likeminded friends to fundraising events.
Parochial Schools and Pastors
Pastors often serve as the most important partner to the leader of a parochial school. The most supportive pastors provide spiritual guidance to the school community, allocate parish resources to be used by the school, encourage parish families to enroll at the school, and serve in multiple capacities to assist a school leader in promoting and raising money for the school.
Reflecting on his experience with Sacred Heart Academy, Fr. Sirico says a pastor does not need administrative experience to be an effective leader of a Catholic school. When he arrived at his parish, he had no experience working in Catholic education. But he had what he describes as the indispensable trait of a pastor: the ability to articulate a vision and inspire the right people to get involved. He warns that pastors can be tempted to try to do everything themselves, which is exhausting and fails to build a team of strong leaders. He encourages pastors to focus their energy on involving the school in greater pastoral efforts, preaching the Gospel, and getting people to Heaven.
Not all pastors are as thoughtful, energetic, and entrepreneurial as Fr. Sirico. Some resent the additional responsibilities that come with having a school connected to their parishes. Some lack the disposition to work well with a school leader. Some limit their engagement with schools because of prior bad experiences with the staff of Catholic schools.
School leaders should understand that not all situations are ideal, but all can be improved with time and effort. Altman says when a pastor lacks enthusiasm, it is the principal’s job to continue to be the advocate for the school and find support from others in the school community and diocese. But even then, the principal should make a good faith effort to keep the pastor apprised of plans for the school. She explains:
Keep in mind that change is harder for some people than others, and we therefore must be ready to spend a lot of time just sitting down and talking to one another, constantly communicating the vision.
Altman shares that, even before she announced her school’s renewal, she spent a lot of time with her pastor, as well as her superintendent, faculty, advisory board, and influential parents discussing why the change was needed, how the school was going to be different than other schools, and what it was going to look like. This was time well spent. Altman explains:
Once we all started speaking that same language, it became easier to spread the vision to others—then we could all hop into the same boat and start rowing in the same direction!
Once everyone is “rowing in the same direction,” it’s still important for a school leader to continue to cultivate a relationship with the pastor. Vander Weele credits her weekly meetings, “even when there is nothing critical to discuss,” with keeping her relationship with her pastor strong. She explains:
It’s important for us to have that touch point. He's one priest of a huge parish so he can't be here all the time. He is present as much as possible, but, even more important than his presence, is his unspoken support. He and I are very much in lockstep.
Diocesan Schools and Superintendents of Catholic Schools
Diocesan schools benefit from the financial support and endorsement of the diocese. In exchange, they are generally required to adopt a set of standards and benchmarks that are not significantly different from those used by modern secular schools. For several years, many dioceses struggled to adapt to the breakthrough success of the renewal of Catholic liberal education. But that has changed. Thanks to school leaders who have put in the time and effort to work through questions and concerns by superintendents and other diocesan staff, there is now precedent for dioceses to grant greater autonomy to renewed Catholic schools.
St. Jerome Academy was the first diocesan school to work out such an agreement with the superintendent of Catholic schools of a diocese. Since 2010, the school has followed its own Educational Plan. Rather than begrudge the school’s departure from diocesan standards, the diocese now celebrates it as the reason for the school’s turnaround success. Consider this description of the school on the Archdiocese of Washington website:
St. Jerome Academy is the Archdiocese’s Classical school and one of only a few schools nationwide to pair a liberal-arts based K-8 curriculum with a Montessori pre-K program. Our school is dedicated to the cultivation of truth, goodness and beauty in every child.
The SJA Educational Plan was implemented in the 2010-2011 school year, after years of declining enrollment. Following several straight years of dramatic growth, SJA is now at full enrollment and attracts 175-200 applicants per year.
Altman has a strong relationship with the Diocese of Austin. She was intentional about involving the superintendent of Catholic schools in her plans to transform her school. One of her goals has been to provide a roadmap for other schools in the diocese to embrace Catholic liberal education. She recalls:
In my diocese… we wanted to be sure that we tackled some major challenges head on so that it would be easier if other schools wanted to join us on our journey; hence my amazing dean of curriculum worked on classical standards that could be used with our accreditation agency for schools like us.
We now are going to meet regularly with that agency, along with our wonderfully supportive superintendent, to further develop other aspects of our accreditation process that would allow us to engage in continuous improvement with the freedom to operate in a classical model.
Vander Weele has a relationship with the Archdiocese of Denver that is a true partnership. The superintendent has actively sought out Vander Weele and her school community for guidance on how to accommodate and support Catholic liberal education in Denver. She explains:
Our relationship with the diocese is critical. The current superintendent is the third in that position since I’ve been at Lourdes. He is the first who fully supports what we’re doing. The first two took a hands-off approach.
But now, the office of Catholic schools is incredibly supportive. They appreciate what we’re doing, have sought us out for advice and guidance, and have been accommodating about not imposing bureaucratic requirements that don’t work for us. For example, they know we don’t have devices for every student, so we take standardized tests manually. It’s been a big help having the freedom to satisfy the requirements of the diocese in a way that is consistent with our approach.
Independent Schools and Boards of Directors
Independent schools are governed by a board of directors that serves as the legal entity overseeing the school. Most board members are not involved in the day-to-day operation of the school, and yet, they have enormous power over the most consequential matters concerning a school—for example, changes to the mission and vision, updates to major policies, the hiring and supervision of a school leader, and the purchase of property. It is critical, therefore, that the right people serve on the board—and that problems regarding the healthy functioning of the board are identified and addressed as early and as constructively as possible.
Selecting a board is one of the first tasks completed by the founders of a new school. Often the parents starting a school make up the initial board. It is not uncommon for the board to experience high turnover in the first few years until a core group of members who work well together is established. The process of developing the board—by inviting new members to join and rotating weak or problematic members off—can be overwhelming. Observing three general guidelines is helpful:
The board should only consist of individuals who are aligned philosophically with the mission of the school, passionate about advancing a clear vision for the school, and endowed with personal attributes necessary to govern with integrity.
Individuals are unfit for the board unless they are known to be honest, gracious, reasonable, willing to listen and learn, and capable of putting the good of the school over personal agendas.
It should never be assumed that successful adults who have an association with the school—for example, who have a child or grandchild enrolled at the school—share the values of the school leadership and have the appropriate disposition to contribute to the positive governance of the school. New members must be carefully vetted before they are invited to join the board.
In addition to finding the right individuals to serve, boards should consider policies and practices that have worked well for independent Catholic schools, including:
The head of school should have a seat on the board. It is inappropriate for the board to meet and not communicate decisions made to the head of school. It is unhelpful for the head of school not to hear and participate in discussions shaping important decisions.
Per the principle of subsidiarity (discussed earlier in the chapter), the board should allow the head of school to run the day-to-day operations of the school.
The board should establish committees to facilitate greater assistance in important areas—for example, admissions, fundraising, hiring, curriculum development, and Catholic formation. Committees can include faculty members and other non-board members. Inviting someone to serve on a committee is a good way to audition outsiders for board membership.
The full board should meet at least quarterly; committees can meet separately in between meetings of the full board.
Not all board members must be major donors, but all must give at a level that is appropriate for their situation. As one school leader put it: “100% board giving is non-negotiable. Why should donors do what the board is unwilling to do?”
The board should strive to maintain institutional memory among board members. One way to do this is by not having fixed terms. Another way is to reappoint strong members upon the completion of a term.
In recognition of the importance of strong and principled leadership, the board should have a policy of facilitating the removal of ineffective or problematic board members.
School leaders have an important role to play in helping the board provide responsible governance. Their job is to communicate effectively with the board so decisions can be based not on a theoretical idea about the way a school could be run but on the lived reality of the school community they serve. This means school leaders should prepare regular reports and make themselves available to answer questions. It also means they should proactively encourage the board to participate in the life of the school. Crawford, who has had a strong relationship with his board since the founding of his school, explains:
It is important that a school not see its board as an alien entity, that it encourages the board to witness the life of the school and foster a relationship of trust with board members.
He recommends encouraging board members to visit the school, sit in classrooms, and get a firsthand experience of the school. Ultimately, all interactions should be aimed at helping the board work together professionally, in a spirit of friendship, to serve the good of the school.