On a wet, chilly Thursday morning in January, about 500 Catholic school teachers, principals and administrators gather on campus to take part in an unprecedented effort to elevate teaching and learning in Cincinnati’s Catholic elementary schools. They’ve come to hear David O’Brien, an authority in Catholic education from College of the Holy Cross, speak on the future of Catholic education. His focus is on the elementary schools, which are, for the most part, the beginnings of the Jesuit university system.
“We stand at a crossroads in American Catholic history,” he says. “Your voice has to be heard. We need to get back to a strong sense that everyone has responsibility for our schools.”
His talk is a small part of a unique program created by a $2 million gift from the Clement and Ann Buenger Foundation that focuses on building better Catholic schools in southwest Ohio. The core of the five-year program is offering free continuing education to Catholic elementary school teachers and administrators in the region.
So far, 110 educators from 21 area schools are taking the courses that go well beyond the typical professional development programs that generally last a semester or, in some cases, a day. The year-long graduate-level courses are carefully prepared and tailored to meet the unique characteristics of Catholic school environments. Education courses in math, science and executive leadership are the primary focus, although teachers who want to be principals can earn a master’s degree in Catholic school administration.
The response to the program is—as it is with O’Brien—enthusiastic. “He made me proud to be part of it and to be responsible for carrying on,” says Alma Joesting, principal of St. Lawrence School in Cincinnati. “Even with the declining numbers of priests, declining enrollment and rising costs, I’ve got a sense we’re on the right track because our parish schools meet regularly about what can be done.”
The program is expected to provide Catholic school teachers and administrators the additional education they need to improve the quality of their teaching skills and prepare them to be the next generation of Catholic school leaders.
“The members of the Buenger Foundation are very much interested in making it possible for Catholic schools to continue to enrich their educational programs,” says Ann Buenger, director of the foundation. “We believe that together, Xavier and the Archdiocesan school office can make a powerful impact.”
Those studying math, science or executive leadership attend class on campus monthly and during summer sessions, taking a new course each of their three years. Those studying toward a Master of Education degree spend two years on campus. During the initiative’s final two years, selected master teachers go into the schools to work with and mentor the teachers and administrators who attended class at Xavier. They, in turn, can mentor other teachers in their schools.
The schools selected for the program were eager to participate because the opportunity for professional development eludes most Catholic school teachers, whose modest salaries are usually below their public school counterparts. Participating teachers and principals taking professional development courses earn three credit hours and a $1,000 to $1,300 stipend each year. Those in the master’s degree program earn 15 credit hours and $1,000 per year. Each participating school also receives $1,000 a year for math and science materials.
“From what I’ve seen, this is probably the most significant effort to improve Catholic education that has ever occurred in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati,” says Mike Flick, director for the Xavier center for educational excellence. Known as X-CEED, the professional development office for educators is coordinating the initiative.
Those expected to gain the most from the investment, however, are the students in the region’s Catholic schools.
“The principals and teachers selected to participate in the Initiative for Catholic Schools will bring what they learn back to their schools and classrooms, directly benefiting the 53,500 students who attend our schools,” says Brother Joe Kamis, superintendent of Catholic schools for the Cincinnati Archdiocese.