Mary Pat Donoghue
Mary Pat Donoghue is executive director of the Secretariat of Catholic education for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. She served as principal of St. Jerome Academy in Hyattsville, Maryland, and director of school services of the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education.
As principal of St. Jerome Academy in Hyattsville, Maryland, you led the stunning turnaround of a now-thriving parochial school on the brink of closure. Your success has inspired similar reform efforts across the country. For those who are unfamiliar with SJA, please share your school’s parish, diocese, and grades served.
St. Jerome Academy is the parish school of St. Jerome Church. It serves students in a pre-school Montessori program (beginning at 18 months old) through 8th grade.
What was the condition of SJA at the outset of your renewal efforts?
SJA was in the 10th year of a steady decline in enrollment. In 2001, the school had roughly 480 students; by 2009, that number would be about 245. During this decline, the school operated at a deficit, which produced significant debt (approximately $500,000).
What was your vision for SJA? How did you think of your mission? What did you hope to accomplish?
Initially, my vision for SJA was to establish a means for the school to remain open and to thrive. This evolved into an understanding that the problems that led to the school’s decline were directly related to the substance of the program that was offered. Through this process, I began to think of the mission as a “reimagination” of a Catholic school. I hoped to restore the school to its long and proud tradition of serving the families of St. Jerome and neighboring parishes (there were many families who lived in the parish but did not send their children to the school).
What steps did you take to institute the reforms you envisioned?
Because the situation at SJA was quite dire, the Archdiocese would only grant permission to register students for the next year if we demonstrated a viable path for success, it was necessary to take several steps at once:
The establishment of a curriculum committee to actually build the framework of a “reimagined” school. I tapped several parishioners who eagerly agreed to give hours of their time to this effort.
We also needed to establish a finance committee to assist with the most pressing concern: closing a budget deficit for the year that was around $100k. This committee evaluated current fundraising plans and initiated a campaign to raise the remainder.
We established a marketing and development committee to introduce the new approach. This involved “re-branding” the school through a new logo and motto, as well as changing the name from “St. Jerome School” to “St. Jerome Academy."
What was the result?
As a result of these efforts, we were able to demonstrate to the Archdiocese of Washington our commitment to a viable path forward. We closed the budget deficit for that year, a brand new Educational Plan was written, and we were able to create a “buzz” in the local community about the changes coming.
What have you learned—through your experience at SJA, the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education, and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops—about how the culture and curriculum of a thriving Catholic school differ from government schools? From struggling or mediocre Catholic schools?
I believe that the distinction of an excellent Catholic school lies in the degree to which the school conforms itself to the longstanding educational tradition of the Church. That is, it adapts a Catholic worldview in its pedagogy and curriculum, emphasizing the harmony of faith and reason, the goals of wisdom and virtue, and the understanding of the nature of the human person and of reality itself. If these are not obvious in subjects outside of religion class, then the school falls into a duality that ultimately undermines the mission: that is, an attempt to teach the Catholic faith and form students, partnered with curriculum and pedagogy that are more aligned to the secular understanding of education.
How often do students at thriving Catholic schools attend Mass?
I think this can differ widely based on the school’s circumstances. Certainly, a school community should gather for divine worship at least weekly. I also like the approach that some schools take of offering students the opportunity to attend Mass voluntarily at other times during the week. We need to pray for an increase in vocations to the priesthood so that more schools can experience this.
How else do thriving Catholic schools integrate the Catholic faith into the school program?
It’s important for Catholic schools to consider that they are cultivating an environment and building a culture ordered to Jesus Christ the Logos. This means that Christ is the organizing principle for the school, which should be reflected in the school’s aesthetics (beauty and harmony throughout), the practices of pedagogy (ordered properly to human nature and child development), and an approach to curriculum that reflects a Catholic worldview (integrated, cohesive, comprehensive, emphasis on language, etc.).
How have you seen the integration of subjects—for example, mathematics, science, literature, and history—in a curriculum deepen students’ understanding of the material and enhance their overall educational experience?
Modern secular education tends to fragment knowledge, but we understand that knowledge ultimately coheres in the person of Jesus Christ. The integration of subjects—whether in the content itself or through pedagogical methods—allows the student to glimpse the beauty and complexity of the created world.
Low enrollment at a school signals a lack of enthusiasm of local parents to entrust a school with their children’s education. How have you seen struggling schools increase their enrollment? How have you seen thriving schools maintain steady enrollment?
The first thing a struggling school must do is engage in a self-inventory and self-reflection. When my own school was struggling, I recall how difficult it was for us (teachers and staff) to come to terms with the cause of it. Secondly, it’s very important for schools to understand and live the Church teaching that parents are the first and primary educators of their children. This means being willing to break down some of the decades-long separation of the school and the home.
Perhaps the most important element in ensuring the survival of a school is in understanding that the quality of the school is directly related to the quality of its teachers. Hiring for mission, seeking teachers who are witnesses first, and empowering them with incarnating the mission of the school is key to steadiness and growth.
What observations can you share about the different tuition models of thriving schools? What can you share about sibling discounts and financial aid?
Ideally, schools would offer a “full cost, full need” tuition model. This means, first, establishing the actual cost per student. Secondly, the school would undertake a process to determine family need (for example, financial aid applications). Accessibility is critical to the mission of Catholic schools, so certainly sibling discounts and financial aid should be made available. But it’s important for everyone involved to know and understand the financial needs of the school; paying teachers a decent wage is important and will contribute to the school’s stability. I applaud schools that set up tuition assistance funds and encourage parishioners and grandparents to contribute.
How important it is for parents to be involved in the life of a school?
The Church affirms the primacy of parents as their child’s teacher. This needs to be understood and honored. Therefore, families should be invited into the life of the school. This can be done in many concrete ways: family “field trips” on weekends, family breakfasts, family book clubs, etc.
It also means that families are willing to bring the school into the life of their family. This is demonstrated by support of school events, willingness to serve/volunteer, and participation in activities.
What is the hallmark of a great teacher?
A great teacher knows Jesus Christ personally and this inspires a desire within the teacher to continually come to know Him better, and to take seriously the obligation to shepherd his or her students into a deeper relationship with Christ. The great teacher is also intellectually curious, capable of experiencing wonder, and keenly aware of the dignity of the children in the classroom.
What shortcomings can a school leader help a teacher correct with training? What makes a teacher an improper fit at a school? How have you seen school leaders strengthen their teaching faculty by identifying and maximizing opportunities to better serve students and families?
It's very common for school leaders to offer intervention and support to new teachers. This most commonly occurs in areas such as classroom management, lesson pacing, and communication with parents. The strongest school leaders understand that offering teachers ongoing formation—spiritual, theological, professional—is key to “sharpening the tool” and keeping teachers effective in the classroom.
How have you seen thriving schools intentionally build and strengthen their school communities? How do the best schools communicate with students, families, and teachers? How do members of strong school communities connect with each other?
A strong sense of community lies at the heart of strong Catholic schools. One simple way to accomplish this is to invite community members to school Masses. When we were working on converting St. Jerome, it became a priority for me to change the mission of the Parents’ Association from its traditional fundraising (wrapping paper sales!) role to something more like facilitating the partnership between school and home. Homeroom parents arranged social gatherings for the families of students in a particular grade, and also planned and organized weekend outings to places related to the curriculum.
What resources do you recommend parents use at home to deepen families’ understanding of and appreciation for the Catholic faith? For example, Word on Fire, Institute of Catholic Culture, Augustine Institute, etc.
I would endorse all that you have listed. I would also encourage families to deepen their connection to Catholic culture through films and literature.
What do parents value most in thriving schools? How do you know?
The most important thing for parents is to trust that their child is learning in an environment of love and respect for the dignity of each child. When a school is thriving, there is comfort in knowing that this experience is secure.
How do thriving schools recruit new families? What resources do they use to tell their schools’ stories and connect with likeminded families? What insights can you share about what parents are seeking for their children and what thriving schools offers that others don’t?
The single best way to recruit new families is through outreach from your current families. Schools don’t need expensive marketing campaigns; making use of neighborhood listservs and hosting events for the community at large are great ways to reach out.
How much do school leaders need to sell their community of parents on the value of the education and formation their school offers? How many parents seek out what their school offers vs. how many need to be convinced? What messaging resonates with parents?
It is critically important to define Catholic liberal education, especially noting that it is the fullest expression of the Church’s educational tradition. Schools should host presentations and discussions for current and prospective parents to fulfill this.
The message that resonates most is the understanding that the aims or ends of Catholic education are distinctly different than those of secular education, and, therefore, the means to reach them are different. Catholic liberal education aims to provide an integral formation that nourishes and encourages the academic, spiritual, and moral faculties of children, so that they may live happy and well-ordered lives of service in this world, and enjoy eternity with God in the next. This tends to produce engaged and joyful students, which parents appreciate greatly.
How does a thriving school determine whether a prospective family will be a good fit for its school community? What steps should be included in the application process? What shared values do current families expect school leaders to protect as they add new families to their school communities?
Throughout its centuries-long tradition, the Church has offered an education to families and individuals who manifested a desire for a Catholic education. That mission still holds today, but our current cultural climate causes us to consider a few elements:
Desiring a Catholic education must be partnered with at least the willingness to understand its nature.
Schools must be fully transparent about their nature and their expectation of parents.
Because they are forging a partnership with the school, there should be a sense in which the school and family reinforce shared values.
Within that understanding, schools must remember that they share the Church’s overall mission to reach out and evangelize. School leaders will be called upon to discern the best way to proceed in some individual situations.
What should a school leader look for when hiring teachers?
Prospective teachers should manifest a love for their faith, intellectual curiosity, and joy. They should be willing to enter a professional community founded on lifelong learning.
How do thriving schools recruit new teachers? What resources do they use to tell their schools’ stories and connect with qualified teachers outside of their school communities? What insights can you share about what teachers are seeking in a school community and what thriving schools offers that others don’t?
Again, the degree to which a school defines and explains its philosophy is an indicator of how it will approach recruitment. Successful schools look beyond education majors to candidates with strong liberal arts backgrounds.
In my experience at St. Jerome Academy, I rarely had to recruit. Because the school’s mission and vision were so well known, I regularly received resumes from candidates who expressed a desire to be a part of that community.
How do school leaders determine whether teachers they are considering hiring will be a good fit for their school communities? What steps should be included in the interview process? What shared values do current teachers and families expect thriving schools to protect as they add new teachers to their school communities?
Ah, if only there were a crystal ball in the hiring process! A few things I have done to help this:
Provide candidates a detailed description of the school’s philosophy and a job description related to it.
Organize an interview team consisting of other stakeholders—parishioners, board members, possibly faculty.
New teachers should be expected to share the understanding of the relationship between home and school (parent as primary educator), the essence, purpose, and ends of Catholic education, and the fact that Jesus Christ is the foundation of all that the school does.
How do thriving schools train teachers and what have you learned about teacher training?
It’s important to consider the professional development process to be one of formation. Thriving schools approach this in a multi-layered way: shared worship opportunities, seminars and workshops offered by experts, and shared reading and discussion among the faculty.
What observations can you share about how thriving schools cover their budgets through tuition revenue and fundraising? How important is fundraising? How important is it to involve families of means in Catholic schools and what concerns arise? What works best to inspire families and community members to support good schools? What doesn’t work? How do thriving schools create momentum in their fundraising efforts?
As a general principle, schools should aim for tuition to cover roughly 80–85% of its operational budget. Diverse revenue streams are important, but traditional fundraising often results in lots of sweat equity and low return. Another weakness of traditional fundraisers is that they often “hit” the same people who are already paying tuition.
Initiatives that result in outreach to the wider community (parish, diocese, friends of the school) are more effective. Schools and parishes should consider capital campaigns (targeted for specific projects) and tuition assistance fund drives.
School leaders should present an annual “State of the School” address to the community, outlining the financial state of the school and the initiatives.
How should schools delegate fundraising responsibilities? What have you seen work for thriving schools? Should school leaders be the primary fundraiser? How many hours should a school leader spend on fundraising every week? How many hours should other staff spend on fundraising?
If at all possible, schools and parishes should work with a development director who would be responsible for much of the ground work of raising money. But leaders maintain an important position; they are often tasked with “selling” the school’s mission and vision to potential donors. Similarly, all members of the staff should see themselves as ambassadors for the school.
It’s hard to define the right “number of hours per week,” and most fundraising is cyclical, but it must be understood as integral to the mission.
Independent schools, parochial schools, and diocesan schools have different challenges managing relationships with individuals who oversee their schools. What approaches have you seen work well with respect to relationships with those who oversee different schools (the board for independent schools, the parish for parochial schools, the diocese for diocesan schools)? What common challenges arise for each model and what do thriving schools do well that would be helpful for other schools to know about? What advice are you willing to share about how to navigate important and/or challenging relationships?
As in all relationships, communication is key. Whether schools are working with a pastor and diocese or a board of directors, there should be regular communication and appropriate accountability.
One challenge that I have seen in both private and parochial schools is the challenge of understanding the roles and authority of each entity that supports the school. What is the role and authority of the pastor and the superintendent? What is the role and authority of the advisory or governing board? This should be well-established in bylaws and understood by all.
What is the greatest challenge of most Catholic schools?
The Church is experiencing high levels of disaffiliation. This has affected Catholic schools greatly and is one of the drivers of the yearly reduction in enrollment nationally. Of course, this drop in enrollment feeds other problems, especially those of a financial nature. But the origin is often the crisis of faith in the Church.
What do thriving schools do better than competing schools in their area?
Thriving schools know who they are and they have a well-articulated vision that is understood by their faculty, staff, and students. They have taken the time to consider their philosophy and beliefs about education: how do children learn best at different stages? How should we approach the teaching of writing, of mathematics, of science, etc.?
These discussions should precede the choice of materials.
What have our questions not covered that would help clarify the success of thriving Catholic schools?
I think it’s critically important, and a pro-life imperative, for Catholic schools to consider the ways that they can serve children with different learning needs and with intellectual disabilities.
What is the most important difference between thriving schools and struggling schools?
Thriving schools are populated by staff who deeply understand and fully support the mission of the school.
Share one custom that you’ve seen and admired in a thriving Catholic school.
Schools that provide multi-age activities experience a strong sense of community among students.
Share one resource that you’ve seen strengthen a Catholic school.
It’s important for schools to define their philosophy—what do we believe about how students learn to write? Engage with math? Develop scientific habits of mind?
Share one tool—online or otherwise—that increases the efficiency or professionalism of your work.
Collaboration with other school leaders provides inspiration and, frequently, much-needed support.
Share one activity you do regularly that makes you a more effective leader.
Pray! It’s critical for leaders to have an interior life of prayer.