Diocese Unveils Final Plan for Catholic Schools

Screen Shot 2016-02-17 at 9.58.00 PMThe Diocese of Erie today unveiled Building in Truth and Love, the highly anticipated final plan for Catholic schools throughout the 13-county Diocese of Erie. The blueprint is part of the most comprehensive pastoral planning effort the diocese has undergone in several decades.

“I believe parents in northwest Pennsylvania, and particularly in the Erie area, will be very happy with the final plan,” said the Most Rev. Lawrence T. Persico, bishop of Erie. “It is built on a solid foundation of data, but also incorporates imagination and inspiration. Catholic education is a crucial asset in our community, and the plan ensures families will be able to take full advantage of its benefits for generations to come.”

The final plan contains observations, goals and strategies for Mission and Catholic Identity; Governance and Leadership; Academic Excellence; and Operational Vitality. Unlike the preliminary plan proposed last year—sixth through eighth-graders now will remain embedded within the PreK-8 buildings.

“We asked for feedback from the community, and the community responded with great passion,” said Father Nicholas Rouch, vicar for Education. “The deep desire voiced by so many people who value the PREK-8 system gave us reason to re-evaluate this aspect of the plan.”

“In light of the feedback, we went back to the research,” Father Rouch said. “Ultimately, we felt we could accomplish our overall goals of academic excellence in a faith-based environment while keeping all our students in PreK-8 buildings. We are deeply committed to system-wide, age-appropriate opportunities for middle school students. We are designing a more focused approach for students in grades six to eight, increasing academic rigor, emphasizing high school preparedness and expanding offerings ranging from spiritual experiences to international languages.”

Strategies Outlined

A separate document released today enumerates key features of the plan for sixth through eighth-grade students, and outlines the strategies that will be used to accomplish specific goals. Among the highlights of middle-school education in Catholic schools in the greater Erie area:

  • a campus minister to develop age-appropriate spiritual experiences for middle school students
  • competitive and intramural sports programs focus on science, technology, engineering, math (STEM) across the curriculum through new science labs, improved access to technology, an emphasis on problem-solving and teamwork
  • emphasis on debate and public-speaking skills
  • a middle-school-specific code of conduct
  • career education and exploration
  • wellness programs
  • professional development for middle school teachers
  • opportunities for students from multiple campuses to meet for educational activities focused on the arts
  • readiness for a smooth transition into Catholic high school

New Catholic School System in Erie

The final plan calls for the creation of a new Catholic school system in the Erie area: the Erie Catholic School System, replacing the current array of independent, parish-based schools. The Erie Catholic School System will be similar to the approach already successfully established in three areas of the diocese—DuBois, the Shenango Valley and Elk County. The new system, which is expected to open in September 2017, will comprise six campuses: Blessed Sacrament, Our Lady of Peace, Our Lady’s Christian, St. George, St. James and St. Luke. Two other schools, Our Lady of Mount Carmel School and St. Boniface School, will close after the 2016-17 academic year. Opportunities to develop Holy Family School into a separately incorporated diocesan school with philanthropic support from the wider community are being discussed. An exploratory committee will soon be appointed for this purpose.

The diocese said it will need to make a multi-million dollar fundraising effort to support middle school education as well as diocesan-wide professional development opportunities for Catholic school personnel.

St. Gregory in North East will remain open, but participate in a new diocesan collaborative for parish-based schools (PBS). Eleven grade schools not connected to systems in the diocese will belong to the PBS Diocesan Collaborative, designed to strengthen and support the parish-based schools in smaller communities.

The Sisters of St. Joseph of Northwestern Pennsylvania have said they will continue to operate Villa Maria Elementary as a sponsored ministry. Six of the seven Catholic high schools in the diocese will remain open.

Venango Catholic to Close Amid Declining Enrollment

Venango Catholic High School in Oil City will close at the end of the 2015-16 academic year. The challenges of declining enrollment and substantial infrastructure needs were too significant to overcome.

“This decision was among the most difficult of the entire planning process,” said Bishop Persico.

“But the realities we are facing meant we simply would not be able to continue offering the quality education students deserve.” Analysis demonstrated more than one million dollars above operating costs would be needed to keep the school viable in the next several years. There was no evidence that an additional significant investment in marketing and recruitment would provide the results necessary for the school to reach sufficient operational vitality, according to the Catholic Schools Office.

Bishop Persico and representatives from the Catholic Schools Office, including Father Nicholas Rouch, vicar for Education, met with faculty and families at Venango Catholic to discuss the decision in person.

Venango Catholic High School opened its doors in 1962 because the former St. Joseph High School in Oil City was not large enough to accommodate its 442 students. The school, which has a current enrollment of 67, will remain open until the end of the 2015-16 academic year.

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Parishes to Work Together

All parishes in the diocese will contribute to the financial support of Catholic schools. “Catholic education is an essential outreach,” Bishop Persico said. “By working together, we can ensure that students in northwest Pennsylvania have access to a rigorous, top-quality, Catholic education. We also recognize that we need to do everything possible to keep it affordable.” In addition to parish subsidies and parish-based endowments, the diocese plans to continue growing its scholarship funds.

All Catholic schools in the diocese will be under the leadership of the newly created position of superintendent of schools. Implementation of the plan calls for two new positions: a superintendent overseeing all Catholic elementary, middle and secondary schools, and a president for the Erie Catholic School System. Both are expected to be hired by this summer. A board also will be established for the system.

The hope is to implement many of the changes by the beginning of the 2017-18 academic year; some aspects could occur earlier and some later, depending on a number of factors.

The Erie Catholic School System will mean more collaboration and less competition among the Catholic elementary schools, ensuring consistency in everything from tuition rates to academic offerings. Sharing resources will create an economy of scale that will significantly improve the educational value.

Future of Catholic Schools in Region

The final plan was presented to clergy, principals and diocesan administrators earlier today. It is the result of more than 18 months of work under the leadership of the Catholic Education Task Force of the Pastoral Planning Committee, in concert with the Catholic Schools Office and the Wisconsin-based Meitler consulting firm. School officials contributed to the process at two major junctures in the process, and, of course, the public—including parents, grandparents, alumni and even students—weighed in after the preliminary plan was released last October.

The final plan draws significantly on the inspiration of a 2005 document from the U.S. Bishops titled, Renewing Our Commitment to Catholic Elementary and Secondary Schools in the Third Millennium. It states, “Young people are a valued treasure and the future leaders of our Church. It is the responsibility of the entire Catholic community to strive toward the goal of making our Catholic elementary and secondary schools available, accessible and affordable to all Catholic parents and their children, including those who are poor and middle class.”

In working on the plan, Bishop Persico said he felt “a great responsibility to the sisters and priests and families who came before us. They poured their lives into our Catholic schools. Now it’s our turn to assume that responsibility. We can do no less.”

Bishop Persico also said aspects of the plan will continue to evolve, but emphasized his confidence in “a very strong foundation for the future of Catholic schools in the region.”

Discussion about the need for a pastoral plan began less than a year after the arrival of Bishop Persico, who was installed as bishop in October 2012. In August 2014, the diocese engaged the nationally recognized consulting firm of Meitler. Based in Milwaukee, Meitler has worked with more than 120 dioceses and 2,000 Catholic and religious schools since 1971, with an emphasis on strategic planning, demographic and market research and enrollment management.

As part of the process, the diocese developed a listing of Key Indicators for a Healthy School, based on National Standards and Benchmarks for Effective Catholic Elementary and Secondary Schools published in 2012. They can be found in the menu on this web page.

To guide the development of the plan, a Catholic Education Task Force was established in the summer of 2014. Members reviewed data gathered by the Catholic Schools Office and Meitler. Officials visited every school in the diocese, engaging administrators who provided vital information. In addition, community demographics were collected and relevant parish data was compiled in order to create a complete picture of those trends affecting Catholic schools.

This information was shared in multiple forums, and used by the task force to develop the preliminary plan. Working subcommittees of the task force included Catholic identity, academic excellence and school finances.

In announcing the preliminary plan last October, officials at the Diocese of Erie asked people who will implement the plan and those affected by its recommendations to provide feedback. School administrators had access to a confidential online form developed for this purpose; approximately 1,200 individuals also submitted feedback.

The Catholic Schools Office analyzed the feedback that was received after the preliminary plan, and worked to shape the final plan. Bishop Persico consulted with numerous individuals associated with the pastoral planning process before approving the final plan.

In his letter at the beginning of Building in Truth and Love, Bishop Persico noted the plan is the fruit of intensive prayer, study, feedback and collaboration by parents, educators and pastors.

“We now have a roadmap for faith-based academic excellence which is supported by our parishes and affordable for our families,” he wrote, acknowledging there is still much work to do.

“I ask that you join me in wholeheartedly committing yourselves to these initiatives and to our children, who are our hope for the future.“


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