“Catholic Schools: Dividends for Life” is the theme for 2010 Catholic Schools Week, Jan. 31 – Feb. 6, observed throughout the U.S., sponsored by the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA) and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
In the Diocese of San Jose, Kathy Almazol, in her first year as Superintendent of Education, reflected on her recent visits to the 30 Catholic elementary and six high schools in the diocese.
“I am a total advocate for children,” she said. “It was easy to be a principal for 20 years because I feel that children are at the center of all decisions we make. It’s how I do everything.”
A long-time educator, having been a teacher and then principal at St. Justin School and then at St. Clare School, both in Santa Clara, Almazol has undertaken professional development in her new role.
She traveled to Los Angeles and Salt Lake City where she engaged with other Catholic educators “who are living the mission of the Church and the message of the Gospel,” she said.
In her visits to local schools Almazol found “wonderful children and very committed parents and principals who foster a sense of community in their schools.
“I feel very privileged to be the Superintendent visiting these wonderful schools that are such joy-filled places,” she said.
The Catholicity of the schools is very obvious, she said. “Catholic identity is very clear and in visible signs that show how people live and the things they believe in.
“Community outreach, especially to people in need, is clearly a hallmark, in addition, of course, to an excellent academic environment.”
Almazol said, “Our schools really make an effort to live out the spiritual and corporal works of mercy. That’s an ethical issue – to serve, to contribute to the community.”
She said that the biggest need now is to help parents who want to send their children to Catholic school but are having financial challenges. “This year we have $15 million of identified need for families in this diocese,” she said.
There is no standardization of tuition costs throughout the diocese, she pointed out. Each parish and school, working with their various committees, sets the costs.
The pastor is the supervisor of the principal and “pastors and principals work closely together in local school operations,” Almazol said. “The Superintendent’s role is to provide policy overview on instruction (guidelines) and uniform safety procedures at the sites.”
She said that a continuing goal of her department is to encourage and enhance the enrollment of ethnic communities in the diocese.
“We have large numbers of Hispanics now,” she said, “and our goal is to reach out to more of them although tuition costs are a barrier for many.
“We have to make a more concerted effort, however, and, working with priests and parishes, we need to educate people about possibilities so they will not feel disenfranchised from our education system.”
Almazol encourages individual parishioners to contact the School Department about sponsoring a child in a Catholic school.
“People put dollars into a child’s future and into the future of the Church. This personalizes
it for both the child and the donor. You can be part of a child’s life in a very meaningful way.”
Catholic schools, she said, give children “formation in life and excellent academics in a Gospel-centered environment.”
The current economic recession, she said, “has dealt a huge hit to enrollment. Larger families especially can’t afford Catholic schools for their kids.”
She said that NCEA data states that each Catholic elementary school needs a minimum 225 students to be sustainable, noting the recently closed school at Five Wounds Parish in San Jose which had far fewer than that.
“It’s sad for our system because we had to close a school,” she said, “but the parish community there just could not sustain the school. We continue to address all our schools regarding their sustainability.”
As to financial support of Catholic schools, Almazol said that it might be time again to look at school vouchers or tax credits in the public policy arena.
She said that being “private” and “Catholic” is a plus in the present scenario. There is an office in Washington for private schools which provides an array of special funding.
“Catholic schools can access public funds,” she said, “under various federal title programs which include professional development for teachers, for example, as well as for English language learners. These funds do not impact the teaching of religion.”
Almazol said that pre-schools are increasing in the diocese and praised the Pre-School Initiative of the Diocese of San Jose which enables schools to initiate a pre-school program.
St. Leo School in San Jose was the first and now Most Holy Trinity in San Jose have established pre-schools working with the Initiative.
“The earlier we bring children into formal education, the better they will be educationally for the long term,” Almazol said. “Language acquisition skills are an important part of this.”
She said she enjoyed her school visits. “I got to talk to them about my job and they appeared to be very interested. They were curious about my work.”
The School Department is a tightly run operation with one Superintendent, an Assistant Superintendent and their administrative assistants; a Curriculum Director who is part-time (three-fifths) and a part-time Development Director (two-fifths).
These six people serve 30 elementary schools and six high schools with a total enrollment of 16,500 students.
“We serve principals and the parents and pastors who assist the work of the schools,” Almazol said. “Today parishes are not subsidizing schools and in many parishes the school is the largest part of the budget.”
She praised principals and teachers for their professionalism and commitment to educating young people in the Gospel values of the Catholic Church.