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Great School Leaders Are Often Found in the Classroom

This post is from Catholic New York:

We’re in the middle of Catholic Schools Week, which extends through Saturday. Activities and special celebrations are taking place at many Catholic schools throughout the archdiocese, as we told you in myriad listings in our last issue.

There’s another school-related celebration that you should know about. Although it was held before Catholic Schools Week began, it would be hard to find another event honoring individuals more crucial to the success of Catholic schools, and to their future.

The Evening of Teacher Recognition and Call to Discernment, held Jan. 25 at Dillon Hall on the 20th floor of the New York Catholic Center in Manhattan, was an opportunity for the archdiocese’s Superintendent of Schools Office and the Curran Catholic School Leadership Academy to honor 17 teachers from schools all across the archdiocese and also to ask them to consider a special invitation.

The teachers, who were selected for the honor by their principals, were asked to discern whether they have a call to leadership in Catholic schools, specifically as principals.

The honorees were invited “to pray for God’s guidance,” as they “discuss options with their family and friends.” It added that “any honoree who finds that at this moment in their life the answer regarding a call to consider Catholic school leadership is ‘yes,’ then we look forward to discussing a career path and steps to becoming a Curran Catholic School Leadership Fellow with you.”

The Curran Academy, which is supported by donor funding, offers financial grants to fellows who are teaching and pursuing their master’s degree in education at Fordham University, St. John’s University and the University of Notre Dame. The teachers who were recognized have until April 1 to make their application to be part of the next cohort of fellows.

David Markham, a second- and third-grade teacher at St. Simon Stock parish in the Bronx, was one of the honorees who attended the dinner and recognition ceremony, where the teachers heard remarks from Dr. Timothy McNiff, superintendent of schools, and Steven Virgadamo, associate superintendent for leadership and recruitment who is executive director of the Curran Academy.

In an after-school interview a few days later, Markham said that he was “blown away” by the ceremony. Every detail, from the corsage he received early in the evening to the event program to the ceremony’s setting was “brilliantly done,” Markham said.

“You have to take a step back—it’s nice to see where your hard work pays off,” he said.

It was easy to see from Markham’s enthusiasm and the pleasant way he communicated the good things happening in his classroom that he would be the type of teacher who would warrant such recognition.

He told me about four or five interesting projects and concepts that he was addressing with his students. One stuck out. It was a student of the month contest with a couple of twists. The theme for February’s contest was forgiveness. Students cast their votes on index cards, fostering participation in the voting process and also that “your voice makes a difference,” the teacher said. Markham said he encourages students not to vote for their best friends, and to “think about their vote.”

After the first ballot, two female students were tied. In the second vote, they each voted for the other. One student prevailed, although their teacher gave a prize to both. Interestingly, it was brought to Markham’s attention that girls have won each monthly vote thus far, so the students decided that next month the honor should go to a boy.

This is Markham’s first year teaching at the lower grade levels, after three years as a sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade teacher at St. Simon Stock. The 40-year-old earlier taught for two years at St. Lucy’s School, also in the Bronx.

Along with his effectiveness in the classroom, Markham serves the broader school community by assisting with the yearbook, including serving as a photographer at events, and also is an extraordinary minister of Holy Communion at school liturgies, said Kinsley Jabouin, the principal of St. Simon Stock.

Virgadamo said “the building principal is a key ingredient in the success of Catholic schools.” He explained that such leadership, or the lack of it, often spells the difference between a thriving school and one that is merely adequate.

Virgadamo added that most of the needed candidates for principal positions are already employed in the archdiocese’s Catholic schools. The key is to identify them early in their career, he said.

In Markham’s case, he said that he plans to give the Curran Fellowship serious consideration in the next couple of months.

Teachers, he said, “have the drive to find success in others.” The chosen teachers have found that their students are not the only ones with new gifts to develop.

Catholicism’s Impact on the History of Education

In today’s day and age, when it is easy to both take a Catholic education for granted, and, at the same time, potentially harbor feelings of persecution of faith in education, it is important to remember and appreciate the tumultuous history of public education and Catholic education.

While learning and passing on knowledge is intrinsically wired into the brain of all humankind, and there have been teachers and students as long as man has walked on this Earth, the history of formal education in the Western world is much shorter than the history of man, and it is firmly grounded, from the beginning, in Christianity.

Even in Ancient Rome, long considered the intellectual empire of education the pre-Middle Ages world, there is little record of anything indicating free and available education. Only the elite of Roman wealth and society could expect a complete education, and education in this time was seen as more of a status symbol of wealth and leisure time than it was as a practical concern. For a large portion of the Ancient World, literacy was reserved for religious scholars and scribes, and classes or schooling were largely absent. For years, those without wealth and status in cultures from from Israel to China primarily educated themselves by apprenticing in a trade or devoting themselves to religion. Prior to the Middle Ages, India had the most developed and publicly-available education from around 1500 BC to 600 BC, but as the caste system developed it became far more discriminatory.

It wasn’t until during the early Middle Ages that the monasteries of the Roman Catholic Church  became the centres of education and literacy. Evidence of classes and schools in monasteries as the forerunners to the later idea university can be found dated as far back as the early 6th century, a full century before Islam created The University of al-Qarawiyyin which is the oldest existing continually operated university in the world in the latter part of the 7th century.

Free education for the poor was officially mandated by the Church in 1179 when it decreed that every cathedral must assign a master to teach boys too poor to pay the regular fee; parishes and monasteries also established free schools teaching at least basic literacy skills. This was the basis from which all of modern education has sprung, world-wide.

The first American schools founded by the colonists in the 17th century are not actually the first American schools, as the history of Catholic education in the United States is actually older than the United States itself. Religious education was brought to these shores by Spanish missionaries accompanying explorers and conquistadors, and were followed shortly thereafter by French compeers.

Even though English Catholics founded Maryland as a Catholic colony in 1634, and most colonies were founded by Christians and Catholics seeking religious freedoms from the Anglican church, it took some time for Catholic education to take root widely. The end of the Revolutionary War saw the real growth of Catholic schools in America, with Georgetown University being founded in 1789, just a few short years later.

The Catholic education established in the United States saw hard times hard times and a simultaneous boom in the 1840’s when Horace Mann worked to create a statewide system of professional teachers and “common schools” rather than the private schools that had existed before. Mann believed that education should be available to all, and the movement quickly gained strength. Many states began passing “compulsory attendance” laws. No one person did more for public education in the minds of the American people.

However, Horace Mann was also a Presbyterian minister, was also establishing curriculum and ideology for these public schools that drastically shifted education towards a Protestant one, and required that the King James Bible be used in schools. Catholic teachers who refused to participating in the reading of the King James Bible were often dismissed from their teaching positions, and Catholic children in public schools were often bullied and shunned, Tensions built so high in the 1840’s that they began causing riots and violence, with the most severe being the May 3, 1844 riot in Philadelphia that destroyed dozens of Irish Catholic immigrant homes, with Catholic schools and churches being burned to the ground.

This tension against Catholicism in public education created a demand for private Catholic schools, and in 1852 the First Plenary Council of Baltimore urged every Catholic parish in the country to establish it’s own Catholic school for that very reason.

Growth of the Catholic school system grew until 1920, and then the growth became explosive, with an all-time high in the mid 60’s. The mid 1960’s saw 4.5 million elementary school students enrolled in private Catholic schools, with a further million in high-schools, which began a blossoming need for Catholic universities.

Though we are seeing a decline recently from the years that were the peak of enrollment, it is no doubt that Catholicism, and the drive to educate the world in faith and higher learning for centuries, has made our culture what it is today.

Catholic School Leaders and Boards – Who runs the school?

archdiocese-nycAs I work with Catholic Schools throughout the United States I am frequently presented with scenarios of conflict between school leaders and board members.  The dysfunction in such a relationship can be destructive to the Faith community we call the Catholic school. In the article below, I attempt to articulate the primary roles, responsibilities and focus of the Chief administrator of a Catholic School, or a Catholic School system and the Governing Board. It is my hope that it will be used widely to clarify roles and responsibilities before the scenarios of conflict emerge.

For most Catholic schools, the school Board exists primarily to formulate policy and give strategic direction to the school (i.e., plan). The Board is charged with furthering the school’s mission and ensuring the school’s success. The Board’s core activity is planning, and the Board’s primary constituency is not today’s students but the students of the future.

The 8 minimal functions of a Catholic school Board includes:

1. Developing a strategic plan

 2. Policy development

3. Hiring the chief administrator

 4. Approving an annual budget

5. Overseeing financial accountability

6. Establishing just compensation for employees

7. Set tuition

8. Ensuring that in broad terms the school is fulfilling its mission.


Thank you for reading!

Steve Virgadamo

Eight things Catholic School Board Members Should Do

catholic-nycFor most Catholic schools, the school Board exists primarily to formulate policy and give strategic direction to the school (i.e., plan). The Board is charged with furthering the school’s mission and ensuring the school’s success. The Board’s core activity is planning, and the Board’s primary constituency is not today’s students but the students of the future.

The minimal functions of a Catholic school Board includes:

1. Developing a strategic plan

 2. Policy development

3. Hiring the chief administrator

 4. Approving an annual budget

5. Overseeing financial accountability including establishing just compensation and tuition pricing

6. Ensuring that in broad terms the school is fulfilling its mission

The Board members should NOT be involved in the day-to-day operations of the school. Such daily practical matters should be handled directly by the Chief Administrator of the school. The primary responsibility of the chief administrator is to:

  • Implement the policies established by the board.
  • Oversee the implementation of the curriculum and classroom management.
  • Evaluate, hire and fire staff within the financial constraints determined by the Board.

The critical distinction between the roles of the Board and the Chief Administrator is that the Board controls the big picture and gives direction to the Chief Administrator, who implements policy with considerable discretion. The Board is responsible for approving the annual budget, for developing a long-term strategic plan, and for the evaluation and the hiring and firing the Head of the school. The school Head handles the day-to-day operations of the school, typically without any Board intervention or input.

Thank you for reading!

Steve Virgadamo