Catholic identity, academics, accessibility and sustainability keys to four-pronged plan to align schools to Unleash the Gospel

"Unleashing Our Catholic Schools: A Strategic Vision for the Future of the Archdiocese of Detroit" 

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DETROIT — The Catholic Church could exist if it wasn’t allowed to have schools. But it wouldn’t be the Church that Jesus Christ wants it to be, Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron said.

Addressing about 150 principals, pastors and Catholic school leaders Jan. 29 at Sacred Heart Major Seminary, Archbishop Vigneron announced a bold, new vision for Catholic education in the Archdiocese of Detroit, challenging the Church to embark on a journey of renewal and re-invention with Catholic schools as the face of a missionary movement.

The detailed four-pronged plan, called “Unleashing Our Catholic Schools: A Strategic Vision for the Future of the Archdiocese of Detroit,” was rolled out during a two-and-a-half-hour event on the second day of Catholic Schools Week, Jan. 28-Feb. 1, as administrators, principals, pastors and leaders gathered at the seminary for an evening of fellowship and collaboration.

The new vision, which the archbishop called a “watershed moment” for the Church in southeast Michigan, is the fruit of prayerful discussion and deliberation following Synod 16, which made clear that Catholic education is an integral part of evangelization, and the responsibility of the whole Church, he said.

A copy of the Archdiocese of Detroit's strategic vision for schools, "Unleashing Our Catholic Schools," is seen during the unveiling event at Sacred Heart Major Seminary. (Naomi Vrazo | Detroit Catholic) 

“I am not interested in placing the resources of the archdiocese in an educational project that is simply an ‘alternative,’” Archbishop Vigneron said. “There are lots of ways to have an alternative set of schools. We’re not here to be one more alternative. We’re here to do our particular job of training and educating the next generation of saints.”

Kathleen McCann, chair of the archdiocesan Catholic Schools Council, which, along with the Office of Catholic Schools, worked to develop the new vision, said the process was informed by a recently completed strategic planning initiative undertaken by schools across the archdiocese, as well as the charge in Archbishop Vigneron’s pastoral letter, Unleash the Gospel, which expressed the hope “that someday, every Catholic family that seeks an excellent Catholic education for their children can have one.”

“Today, more than ever, I believe this is possible,” McCann said. “Today, more than ever, I know this is necessary. Today, more than ever, I am convicted that this is what the Holy Spirit wills for us here in the Archdiocese of Detroit.”

Listen to an interview with Kevin Kijewski and Kathleen McCann on the new vision for Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Detroit (SoundCloud)

McCann acknowledged the difficulties in such a vast undertaking, but stressed that the culture needs Catholic schools now more than ever. 

“We really do know what’s needed, don’t we?” McCann said. “We want our kids to know and love Jesus — to have their worldview soaked in the truth that they, by name, were created in love, saved in love, and are known by love and desired by love. What’s needed is young people educated in ‘capital T’ Truth, not the shallow, trending ‘small t’ truths our culture insists are sunlight — when they’re only really shadow.”

Kathleen McCann, chair of the archdiocesan Catholic Schools Council, center, and superintendent Kevin Kijewski, right, talk with Fr. Mark Brauer, pastor of Our Lady of Sorrows Parish in Farmington, at the unveiling of the new vision for Catholic schools. (Naomi Vrazo | Detroit Catholic)

Kevin Kijewski, superintendent of Catholic schools for the Archdiocese of Detroit, introduced the new vision, outlining its four essential characteristics: proudly Catholic, academically excellent, accessible to all and sustainable for the future. 

Those four pillars will serve as a roadmap for the strategic transformation of the archdiocese’s 23 high schools and 64 grade schools, Kijewski said, focusing on the spiritual and academic formation of students as disciples of Christ through a renewal of the structures and programs that characterize a high-quality Catholic education.

A focus on Catholic identity

In each of the four areas, Kijewski outlined various tangible goals and timelines, touching on everything from training and mentorship for faculty and teachers to weekly Mass and vocation awareness programs for students.

The first element of the wide-ranging vision, “Proudly Catholic,” is a reflection of the purpose of Catholic schools first and foremost to make disciples of Jesus through the Church, which is built on the intellectual pursuit of truth as divinely revealed by God, Kijewski said.

“This is the whole reason we have Catholic schools,” Kijewski said. “We are here to evangelize, to raise the future generation of saints.”

While every Catholic school should offer weekly Mass for students and opportunities for confession and other sacraments, Catholic identity must also be reinforced by talented Catholic teachers and principals, parents who know their faith, and regular, ongoing formation for students and teachers alike, Kijewski said.

Students at Bishop Foley High School in Madison Heights pray during Mass at nearby Guardian Angels Parish. The new schools vision calls for every school to offer Mass at least once a week for students. (Marek Dziekonski | Special to Detroit Catholic)

To that end, the Catholic schools vision places significant emphasis on recruiting, attracting and training high-quality teachers and principals who not only are highly skilled in their professions, but are committed, practicing disciples with a heart for sharing Christ’s Gospel, Kijewski said.

“We need to ensure that the men and women in our schools are the best that they can be. They have to be highly qualified, they have to be disciples, and they have to be in the mission,” Kijewski said.

To do this, the archdiocese plans to develop various training and mentorship programs for principals, teachers and pastors; toolkits for schools to use in recruiting and hiring qualified and faith-filled educators; and the institution of leadership teams at the school level to assist principals in carrying out the school’s vision.

Kijewski cited research from the Georgetown University-based Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate that shows millennial Catholics who attended Catholic schools are seven times more likely to practice their faith as adults compared with their counterparts in public schools, and boys who attend Catholic high schools are six times more likely to consider a vocation to the priesthood.

“If we do not ensure our schools are proudly Catholic, we’re going to have a smaller Church in the future,” Kijewski said. “God wants His world back, as the archbishop has said. God wants His territory back, and God wants His kids back.”

Bolstering already excellent academics

Schools in the Archdiocese of Detroit already enjoy a 99 percent graduation rate, and Catholic schools across the board consistently demonstrate higher academic achievement compared to public schools, Kijewski said. However, in order to be truly exceptional, schools in the Archdiocese of Detroit must be able to provide an education that forms each student’s identity as a son or daughter of God while fostering talents that can be used for the betterment of society.

A student at Our Lady of Sorrows School in Farmington tests weights during a science class at the Farmington grade school. (Marek Dziekonski | Special to Detroit Catholic)

This includes helping students to understand the harmony between faith and reason, Kijewski said, opening their eyes to the rich Catholic heritage and worldview that permeates the physical and natural sciences.

Starting in the 2019-20 academic year, the archdiocese will implement a new academic curriculum and standards that emphasize the connection between “rigorous scientific pursuit and faithful obedience to Christ,” Kijewski said.

The superintendent acknowledged that Catholic schools’ high academic standards are an attraction for many families, who may “come for the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), but stay for the Catholicism.”

“We do a pretty darn good job. But while we do a nice job, we can certainly do more,” Kijewski said. 

On the academic side, the Catholic schools vision calls for the archdiocese to provide “resources and guidance” to help interested schools develop “uniquely and individually excellent” programs such as STEM learning, dual-language immersion and classical education models that will help schools stand out from both the public and private sector.

The archdiocese will also engage the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education to help certain grade schools implement a classical model of education focused on promoting the Aristotelian and Thomistic principles of goodness, truth and beauty.

Finally, the vision calls for new tools that will help students and teachers better collaborate by providing forums and resources for dialogue on current issues in education, fine-tuned performance metrics and even computer-adaptive assessments to help students learn at a pace that’s right for them.

Sr. Catherine Marie, OP, principal of St. Isaac Jogues School in St. Clair Shores, talks with Catholic Schools Council chair Kathleen McCann. (Naomi Vrazo | Detroit Catholic)

“When it comes to the IOWA test, those days are gone,” Kijewski said to applause from educators in the audience. “Having a whole day to complete a bubble sheet is not worth it. What we will have will be a computer-adaptive platform where children, over 25-30 minutes, can take a test, and we can see exactly how they’re doing with real-time actionable information.”

Such information will be useful for coaching principals and teachers on how to have unique, one-on-one interventions to better serve individual students, Kijewski said.

Accessible to all who want a Catholic education

The word “Catholic” means “universal,” and part of the new vision is to make Catholic education in the Archdiocese of Detroit truly universal by ensuring anyone who wants Catholic schooling for their child is able to get it, Kijewski said.

To that end, the new plan calls for the Office of Catholic Schools to explore opportunities for outreach to ethnic and socio-economic groups traditionally underrepresented in Catholic schools.

For example, while African-American or Latino students are 42 percent more likely to graduate from high school and 2.4 times as likely to graduate from college if they attended a Catholic school, their rate of enrollment in Catholic schools is far below the average for other ethnic groups, according to national polling data.

Despite Detroit being one of the most culturally diverse cities in the United States, local Catholic school enrollment doesn’t always reflect such diversity, Kijewski said.

“We have to expand the nets to all of God’s children,” Kijewski said. “We have to make our schools accessible and really reach out to them.”

Kevin Kijewski, superintendent of Catholic schools for the Archdiocese of Detroit, speaks during the unveiling of the new Catholic schools vision Jan. 29 at Sacred Heart Major Seminary. (Naomi Vrazo | Detroit Catholic)

In response to this reality, the new vision calls for the archdiocese to provide cultural competency certification for Catholic schools staff to identify and remove barriers that may exist for minority students, as well as to partner with the University of Notre Dame’s Latino Enrollment Institute to help local Catholic schools better attract and serve Latino families.

“Our schools must be accessible to everyone, because no one is denied the good news of Jesus Christ,” Kijewski said. “We do a lot of good not only academically, but when it comes to all the different populations that we serve, we need to ensure we continue the good work that we do. … We have to ensure we retain our students and do them justice.”

The archdiocese also will strive to open more opportunities for homeschooling families and students with special needs to participate in Catholic schools, Kijewski said, and to develop a plan to promote the benefits of a Catholic education to public school families who send their children to religious education.

Here for today, here for tomorrow

The fourth aspect to the new Catholic schools vision — and perhaps the one most on the minds of families — involves the issue of sustainability, Kijewski said.

While each school’s finances are different, Kijewski said the archdiocese is committed to working toward the development of a sustainable system-wide school finance model to help schools large and small to promote affordable Catholic education.

The development of such a model will come from collaboration between pastors, principals, alumni, members of the philanthropic community and the Office of Catholic Schools, Kijewski said.

“We can’t just tell schools, ‘Try to make it affordable,’” Kijewski said. “We need to work with them and partner with them.”

Kijewski added that “nothing is pre-baked” in the plan, but that through collaboration, “we want to get to the answer” to the funding issue. The answer is somewhere out there. We all have various ideas, but we’re going to be able to do it through God’s providence and the work of the Holy Spirit.”

Fr. Tim Birney, right, pastor of St. Frances Cabrini Parish in Allen Park, smiles as he greets Terry Keating, a member of the Catholic Schools Council, at the Jan. 29 event. (Naomi Vrazo | Detroit Catholic)

The vision also calls for the development of a tool to help individual schools budget in a way that promotes long-term financial sustainability, Kijewski said.

“It’s not about telling schools exactly what to do. No one likes to do that,” Kijewski said. “It’s about showing schools, ‘If you have enrollment at this level, this is how we would generally recommend that you budget.’ We want to be able to say, ‘Here’s a three-year financial forecast of what’s going to happen at your school given the various metrics. And perhaps if you change a few variables, this is how the future might look different.’ 

“There is hope. There is light at the end of the tunnel,” Kijewski continued. “We just have to be able to see farther down the tunnel.”  

In addition, the vision calls for the exploration of “highly effective alternative school governance models” for parish-based and regional schools, as well as fiduciary boards for freestanding archdiocesan high schools and regional elementary schools to help schools adapt to changing economic realities.

Finally, the plan calls for a revamped marketing effort to drive awareness of the many benefits Catholic schools offer to the Metro Detroit community. This effort will include a new look, website and social channels, as well as a media blitz pointing parents to resources to help them choose a Catholic school, Kijewski said.

“Imagine: a parent could go to a website, learn more about a school and then apply, all in the same place,” Kijewski said. “But it's not enough to have a great website. We have to drive people to that website, where we’ll be able to capture those leads and then pass them along to the individual schools.”

Growing for the future

While the new vision for Catholic schools is the product of months of discernment, prayer and collaboration among pastors, principals, parents, archdiocesan officials and educators, implementing the vision will take a commitment from everyone in the Archdiocese of Detroit to ensure Catholic education remains an integral part of the future of the Church, Kijewski said.

While many of the initiatives will take effect in the 2019-20 school year, there is much work still to be done in order to see the vision through to reality, he added.

“The archbishop wants to have the best Catholic school system in the country,” Kijewski said. “In order to do that, we have to make sure that we’re sustainable, and we can get there.”

“I want to flood our schools with students who want to grow, love and serve Christ.” 

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