Category Archives: Lead

Five Ways to Include Disability in Equity Work

The following blog was contributed by Stephanie Cawthon, professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin and founding director of the National Deaf Center.

Last year brought not only the COVID-19 pandemic, but also an intensification of the public consciousness and the need to recognize, unpack, and take action to remedy the deep racial injustices in our society, particularly those experienced by people of color. Data shows our disabled students of color face systemic barriers at far higher rates than their white disabled peers. That proves to me that advocating for disability rights must include addressing the racial divide in our work to support students with disabilities.

Here are the questions I’m asking you to consider, whether you’re a district administrator, school leader, or teacher: When you think about diversity in your school or district and the initiatives to support its increase, do they consider disability? Do you acknowledge racial disparities within the disabled community?

The case for including disability in conversations about race—and vice versa

If we want to truly improve equity in education, we must expand our thinking about what diversity is to include disability—and we must expand our thinking about racism in our work around disabilities—particularly when talking about inclusion, equity, and access to opportunity. Why? Because intersectionality is an important part of equity work. Intersectionality refers to the reality that we are not just one thing; that is, that several things, including race and ability, make up our entire identity.

Expanding our thinking is also important because, as Cindy Li says, “We are all just temporarily abled.” Disability, at one point in time or another, will affect all of us.

How to include disability in equity work

Here are five things that can help you better understand disability and its place in equity work.

  1. Begin by defining “disability.” What does “having a disability” or “being disabled” mean, anyway? Once you know what you’re talking about, it can be easier to decide what, exactly, to do about it.
  2. Acknowledge that disability is complex. Disability rests on a continuum. More specifically, disability is variable, contextual, embedded in culture, and not neutral. 
  3. Address ableism and language. Ableism refers to attitudes and behaviors that devalue people with disabilities. Ableist phrases, however unintentional they might be, can be found throughout the English language. They often use disability status as a way of putting someone or something down.
  4. Keep intersectionality front and center. The understanding that one size doesn’t fit all is foundational to work in special education, but we, as a field, are rarely explicit about how this concept applies to intersectional experiences related to race and gender.
  5. Be wary of “helper” mentality. Ableism can often masquerade as “helping” (quotes very intentional) instead of truly advocating or practicing allyship.

Read more on the NWEA blog, Teach. Learn. Grow., and on Stephanie Cawthon’s website. Interested in supporting students with disabilities in your school or district? Apply for a $10,000 NWEA Educators for Equity grant by June 11, 2021.


About the Author

Stephanie Cawthon is a professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin and founding director of the National Deaf Center. She is passionate about using research to help the deaf community succeed in school and beyond. She holds a BA and MA in psychology from Stanford University and a PhD in educational psychology from the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

Why Have I Chosen Catholic Education As A Vocation?

The following blog was contributed by Kathy Sells, 8th grade homeroom teacher at Holy Family Catholic School in the diocese of Boise.

I chose Catholic education as a vocation because I knew I would not have to be in it alone. I knew I would be working with parents, the primary educators, students, coworkers, administrators and priests; not in typical working relationships, but rather as a covenant relationship; a way of life that pervades every minute, of every hour, of every day. I would be working with people who see Catholicism as a lifestyle, not a moment in time.

I chose Catholic education as my vocation because I believe it to be my best response to God’s invitation to a deeper intimacy with Him. He must increase while I decrease.  Middle school students can see through a phony a mile away. If my faith is not rooted in intimacy with God, I am simply a noisy gong, whether I am teaching religion or math. My students help me to deepen my intimacy with the first teacher, Jesus.

I chose Catholic education as my vocation because I believe it is a beautiful expression of the promises that were made in Baptism through my anointing as priest, prophet and king.  As priests, teachers, students and parents we are called to proclaim the word of God in our words, thoughts and actions. As prophet, teachers, students, and parents are called to stand up in times of injustice to help right the wrongs. And as king, teachers, students and parents are called to servant leadership. We all have a part to play, there is no abdication of our roles.

I chose Catholic education as my vocation because I believe what it says in Ecclesiastes, “Where one alone may be overcome, two together can resist. A three-ply cord is not easily broken” (Ecclesiastes 4:12). If one part of the team: parent, student or school is unable to do their part or chooses to not participate, we are less than successful. Being a math teacher, the numbers speak for themselves. If parents, students and the school all participate that is 100%. I am not saying it is perfect, but we all stand a better chance at success when we work together. If one party does not buy into the mission of Catholic education, we have a success rate of 66 ⅔ percent. That is a significant hit.

I chose Catholic education as my vocation because I believe the relationship between school, parent and student is a beautiful expression of the doctrine of the Trinity: the Lover, the Loved, and the Love between them. Parents are the primary educators of their children and Catholic schools walk with parents to encourage the students to be who God created them to be. These relationships formed with families are ones of humility, sacrifice and love.

So, I chose Catholic education as my vocation because I know I cannot make it to heaven on my own, and Catholic education involves all parties being called by the One to a common goal, eternal life.

“To be saints is not a privilege for the few, but a vocation for everyone.” ~ Pope Francis

Has the Pandemic Impacted Parents’ Perceptions of Catholic Schools?

The following blog was contributed by Amelia Riedel, Senior Consultant for FADICA, (Foundations and Donors Interested in Catholic Activities), which partners with NCEA to support the sustainability of Catholic schools. (Photo courtesy of St. James School, Archdiocese of Cincinnati.)

One of the most important lessons that I think we have learned from the pandemic is the value of community. Throughout history, our Catholic institutions have been at the center of healthy communities and I believe that our Catholic schools are well-equipped to provide the connections and social support needed to assist families throughout the duration of the pandemic.

The increased need for social support and community during the pandemic prompted many parents to consider alternative educational options. A number of Catholic schools across the country experienced an influx of new students this fall, particularly in regions where public school systems remained in remote learning. This activity prompted us to ask some key questions:

“What factors influenced parents to transfer students to Catholic schools?”  

“When the pandemic ends, will the transferred students remain in the Catholic schools?”

“What can Catholic schools do now to retain these families for the next school year and beyond?”

FADICA and NCEA have been researching the answers to those questions in relation to their 2018 study of parents’ perceptions of Catholic schools: The Catholic School Choice: Understanding the Perspectives of Parents and Understanding Opportunities for More Engagement. The study focused on parents who did not have a child enrolled in a Catholic school in order to understand the factors that drive the decision process when choosing a school.

The 2018 study revealed these key findings:

  • More than half (51%) of all parents reported that they are willing to consider Catholic school. If the parents were Catholic, the rate of consideration increased to 77%.

  • Of the parents with students in a public school, 42% reported that they were not satisfied with public school education, with common complaints of over-crowded classrooms, criticisms of the common core curriculum, and the lack of character development.
  • The top three factors that influenced a parent’s consideration of a Catholic school were:
    • Provides a good balance between academics and religious teachings;
    • Creates a diverse learning environment where everyone is welcome;
    • Provides strong character development, with an emphasis on community service.

  • Although affordability may be a barrier for parents considering a Catholic school, the study revealed that 68% of Catholic parents felt confident that they could afford a Catholic school. This confidence increased with awareness of tuition assistance programs through school-based or state-funded school choice programs.

Recently FADICA partnered with the team at Meitler to conduct a sample survey of parents who had transferred their students to a Catholic school this fall, which revealed that:

  • The majority of families who transferred into Catholic schools this fall were Catholic (73%), and reported a household income of $100,000 and up (63%).

  • In addition to the top factors from the 2018 study, additional factors rose to the same level of importance for considering a Catholic school, including:
    • Encourages independent and critical thinking
    • Offers a challenging academic curriculum
    • Has highly trained faculty and staff
    • Uses the latest technology and teaching tools

Since the applications for tuition assistance and school choice programs are often requested several months prior to the start of the next school year, it is not surprising that the parents with a higher level of resources were best equipped to quickly pivot their educational plans during the pandemic. However, an opportunity still exists for schools to build awareness of tuition assistance programs available to families who may feel less confident about the affordability of Catholic schools.

The fact that most Catholic schools were open for in-person learning this fall may have been a primary driver for bringing new students in the door. Once the new students and families experienced all that Catholic schools had to offer, the majority of them (87%) said they are planning to stay, and 90% of parents said they would recommend the school to a friend or colleague. The effectiveness of this “word-of-mouth” marketing may be enhanced through the school’s ability to promote its strengths, especially when correlated with the key drivers of consideration discussed earlier.

In order to obtain more actionable data, we encourage schools to conduct their own parent satisfaction surveys with a special focus on new families. Collecting this information at this point in the school year will allow school leaders to capitalize on strengths and address any concerns that may impact student retention.

Though our study was based on a smaller sample, similar findings were discovered with the NCEA study on transfer students. NCEA plans to share those results in detail via webinar on January 27.

To learn more about FADICA’s Catholic Education Initiatives, visit: fadica.org.

Distance Learning Best Practices

The following blog was contributed by Jill Annable, executive director for academic excellence at the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA) in Arlington, Virginia.

The partnership between Catholic schools and the families we serve has undoubtedly strengthened in the past year. Live video feed has welcomed Catholic teachers into the homes of their students. Parents have expressed a strengthening of their own personal faith lives through participation in the school’s daily prayer rituals, overhearing the virtual preparation of their children’s upcoming Sacraments, and through the work as daily facilitators of their children’s Catholic education.

We all recognize, however, that it hasn’t all been sunshine and roses. Students learning from home hasn’t been easy. Most families never imagined setting up school-like workspaces with strong WiFi signals throughout their homes. The relationship between teacher and parent came to the forefront as whole school communities shared tips and ideas to make the 2020-2021 school year as seamless as possible.

One clear example of this school-home partnership is Our Lady of Mercy School in Potomac, Maryland. Led by Mrs. Doreen Engel, Our Lady of Mercy School prioritized procedures for safe reopening plans in Fall 2020, offering in-person learning. However, like many Catholic schools, distance learning was also inevitable for some families and for entire classes at times throughout the first semester of 20-21.

To assist families who would be learning virtually, parents at Our Lady of Mercy School offered Distance Learning: Best Practices and Helpful Tips to their fellow virtual families. The tips include various home workstation set-ups, routines in family life, and communication strategies to reduce confusion and stress. The goal of this era certainly is not perfection, yet in sharing strategies that work, families can strengthen the opportunities before them for various forms of distance learning in our schools.

Catholic school families continue to amaze me. We have witnessed resilience and dedication to the common good throughout the pandemic, including the family’s commitment to Catholic education. We are grateful for this commitment and are humbled by the ways Catholic school communities continue to strengthen their members.

Refugees: From Bethlehem to America

The following blog was contributed by Adam P. Zoeller, a member of the theology department at Saint Xavier High School in Louisville, Kentucky.

The liturgical celebration of the Feast of the Epiphany at the end of the Christmas season coincides with the beginning of our secular new year. One of the definitions for ‘epiphany’ according to Merriam-Webster is a sudden manifestation of the meaning or essence of something. The turning of calendars provide an opportunity for reflection, growth, and change in light of our own personal epiphanies associated with our role within Church and society.  

As the city of David awaits its Messiah, the Christ child is born. Yet the Holy Family flees to Egypt to escape what is known as the “slaughter of the innocents.” When Herod realized that he had been deceived by the magi, he became furious. He ordered the massacre of all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had ascertained from the magi” (Matthew 2:16). This synopsis of the Christmas story calls us to recognize Jesus, Mary, and Joseph fulfilling Old Testament prophecies, caretakers of the Word Incarnate and lastly as refugees. According to The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), “a refugee is someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war, or violence. A refugee has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. Most likely, they cannot return home or are afraid to do so. War and ethnic, tribal and religious violence are leading causes of refugees fleeing their countries.” Considering that Herod believed that his kingship was being threatened by the birth foretold by the magi, Jesus and His family fleeing due to impending violence due to religious prophecy appears to be an accurate representation of their experience as refugees.  

The authors of the sacred scripture were inspired by the Holy Spirit. The beauty of this divine inspiration is that the lessons do not merely relate to the audience in the first century, but continue to resonate throughout salvation history and into the experiences of our modern world. Biblical exegesis focuses on the interpretation of sacred scripture through a variety of means including but not limited to: contextually, morally, and anagogically. Did the caravan of refugees fleeing “O little town of Bethlehem” include more than the Holy Family? Was this event the first documented case of Mary’s heart being pierced as a mother as she begins to understand the words of Simeon (Luke 2:25)? How does this application of the flight to Egypt inspire Jesus’ teaching on the Judgment of Nations such as, “a stranger and you welcome me” (Matthew 25:35)?

Displacement of peoples due to oppression is not unique to the 21st century either. In October 2020, CBS News reported that President Trump’s administration refugee resettlement hit a historical low, citing that, “Mr. Trump has reduced refugee spots year after year, radically departing from the 110,000-person cap President Obama set in his last year in office. Mr. Trump slashed refugee spots to 45,000 in fiscal year 2018; to 30,000 in fiscal year 2019; and to 18,000 in fiscal year 2020.” In 2019, USA Today ranked the United States of America as the eleventh richest country in the world while the New York Times reported in 2020 that the United States of America is the richest country with the biggest wealth gap. What type of country do we want to reflect to the world, economically rich or rich in kindness?

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “the practice of the moral life animated by charity gives to the Christian the spiritual freedom of the children of God.  He no longer stands before God as a slave, in servile fear, or as a mercenary looking for wages, but as a son responding to the love of him who “first loves us.” (CCC, 1828). By our faith, Christians are called to charity which in turn provides hope for the hopeless.  Recognizing human dignity is at the forefront of Jesus Christ’s mission of inclusion which reaches its fulfillment in the Kingdom of God. This inherent dignity of the human person has a history of being not valued individually and/or collectively. Therefore, the United Nations created the Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 to challenge and hold accountable nations that do not recognize the dignity of the human person. For example, the importance of recognizing the dignity of refugees is reflected in Article #2 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, “Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.

Nations have responsibility for solidarity. Healthy relationships between citizens are contingent upon honest communication, mutual respect and empathetic understanding. Under these standards, a metaphorical bridge for citizens can be built within and between nations to promote human dignity. In conclusion, the words of Pope Francis from the 50th World Communications Day in 2016 challenges the faithful to reflect upon not only our actions, but our words: “Communication has the power to build bridges, to enable encounter and inclusion, and thus to enrich society. How beautiful it is when people select their words and actions with care, in the effort to avoid misunderstandings, to heal wounded memories and to build peace and harmony. Words can build bridges between individuals and within families, social groups and peoples. This is possible both in the material world and the digital world. Our words and actions should be such as to help us all escape the vicious circles of condemnation and vengeance which continue to ensnare individuals and nations, encouraging expressions of hatred.”

References

Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed. (2002). Washington DC: United States Catholic Conference.

Epiphany. (n.d.). In Merriam-Webster online. Retrieved from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/epiphany.

Ewing, Jack. (September 23, 2020). The United States is the richest country in the world, and it has the biggest wealth gap. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/23/business/united-states-is-the-richest-country-in-the-world-and-it-has-the-biggest-wealth-gap.html.

Francis – (2016) “Message of the Holy Father for World Communications Day” Retrieved from http://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/messages/communications/documents/papa-francesco_20160124_messaggio-comunicazioni-sociali.html.

Montoya-Galvez, Camilo. (October 1, 2020). The Trump administration sets the refugee cap at 15,000, a new record low.  Retrieved from https://www.cbsnews.com/news/trump-administration-refugee-resettlement-cap-historic-low/.

Suneson, Grant. (July 8, 2019). These are the 25 Richest Countries in the World. Retrieved from https://www.usatoday.com/story/money/2019/07/07/richest-countries-in-the-world/39630693/.

The New American Bible. (1991). New York, NY: Catholic Book Publishing Co.

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.unhcr.org/.

United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. (2015). Retrieved from https://www.un.org/en/udhrbook/pdf/udhr_booklet_en_web.pdf 

About the Author

Adam P. Zoeller is a member of the theology department at Saint Xavier High School in Louisville, KY.  He earned his B.A. in religious studies and B.A. in clinical psychology from Spalding University (Louisville, KY) and his M.Ed. in educational leadership from the University of Cincinnati (Cincinnati, OH). He holds a Master’s Catechist Certification from the Archdiocese of Louisville. He has presented workshops for the National Catholic Education Association, been published by the Catholic Journal of Education, and worked on educational materials for Revolution of the Heart: The Dorothy Day Story from Journey Films. Adam can be reached at azoeller@saintx.com.

Financial Aid Applications for the 2021-2022 School Year: Considerations for the COVID-19 Era

The following blog was contributed by Megan Fangmeyer, product manager for FACTS Grant & Aid Assessment. Megan recently hosted a webinar on how schools should refine their financial aid strategies for the upcoming school year. She has worked at FACTS for 11 years and spends most of her time researching, interviewing financial aid professionals and working with development teams.

We’ve listed the key highlights from the webinar below.

What We Know About Current Financial Situations

There are still a lot of unknowns and financial situations are changing almost every week. But what we do know is:

  • Lower-income, Hispanic, and black families have been hit the hardest since March.
  • Those in the service industry and some self-employed workers continue to struggle financially as the COVID-19 dials fluctuate across states.
  • Unemployment is nearly twice as high as it was this time last year (6.9% compared to 3.6% in October 2019).
  • The stock market has leveled out and most have made back what they initially lost.

Determining Aid in the COVID-19 Era

Despite these economic and financial changes, the fundamentals of allocating aid are still the same:

  • Families will fall into a “rank” or “order” of need.
  • When a “tie” happens in the ranking with limited funds, additional priorities will need to be given.
  • The goal is to provide families with what they need to send their child(ren) to private school sustainably for the duration of the child’s education.

The struggle we’re facing is that the “order” of need is changing much more rapidly than normal, and there is a lot of uncertainty on when and if the financials will balance out or return for the family. 

Determining Financial Picture

This year – unlike others – you will be digging deeper into family financial situations to see a clear picture of their need. Focus on families whose situations fall into the known affected categories by job type or socio-economic status.

Regardless of the tax return year, a family’s situation may have drastically changed. Even if using the 2020 income data, you will still need to consider how a family’s income continues to change and that it may not be a perfect picture to predict their ability to pay next year’s tuition. For instance, consider families that received the extra $600 for unemployment for a few months, and reduce the family’s 2020 income (especially at lower income ranges) as this will not be income they can count on to pay tuition next year. 

In addition to income changes, you may want to take a look at year-over-year changes in assets and debt. Many families are having to tap into savings, or go further into debt in order to pay bills and stay afloat.

To figure out a more immediate family income situation, or to capture proof of changes, you can ask for more recent documents – bank statements, pay stubs or unemployment letters. You and your committee will need to balance what the family is stating has changed on the application with the work of collecting and evaluating the impacts of these extra documents.

Giving Aid as Situations Continue to Change

Unfortunately, even with these documents, the situation may change within a few months for that family – and again – we’re trying to predict affordability.

Some schools and organizations have given temporary additional awards to families – an expansion of emergency awards. These awards help bridge financials during these times, at varying time intervals (for the full year, semester, or quarterly). These funds are tracked separately so you know which awards came from which bucket, can report to the board, and make predictions for future years knowing what supplemental aid was. Families then know what their ‘normal’ financial aid packet was and what has been added to help during these times. This will help set better expectations as finances recover. ​

Options Outside of Financial Aid Budget

  • Does this family need a temporary break? Are they currently paying by semester and need to move the payment date out a little into the future? Or would they benefit from breaking payments down into smaller chunks? ​Tuition payment plan flexibility can help.
  • Look at what other organizations are available in your area, such as state-specific program relief for education costs. The more you can pull from other resources, the more aid you have to give families. 
  • Try COVID-19-specific fundraising. Appeals to donors, other families, or parishioners can sometimes yield enough to help a family – asking for $5, $10, or $20 can add up quickly.

It is vital that families know there is help available, and how they can discreetly ask for help. This is especially important for non-traditional aid families. It’s also important to remember that at the end of the day, your school’s financial stability is as important as the families’.

2021-2022 Application Changes

Due to the changing circumstances, the 2021-2022 application needs to capture more information about family situations.

Here are some general tips when asking questions:

  1. Leverage conditional questions. If you said yes to this question, let me ask you some more questions related to that one.
  2. Ask for narrative in an essay or short answer. This year as the numbers fluctuate the raw financial data may not match what is going on currently with the family. This will not only give you a better picture of their current situation, but will also help families feel heard.
  3. Ensure you ask ‘set answer’ questions, such as dropdowns, checkboxes, fill-in answers with a validation setting such as date or currency. This will allow you to export and pivot on the data for reporting to boards and donors.

Here are some sample questions that you can use (or adjust to better fit your school’s needs): 

  • Have you been affected by COVID-19?
  1. Has your household income decreased due to events surrounding COVID-19? Yes/No
  2. What is the primary reason for the decrease? Check all that apply.
    1. Reduced hours or pay
    2. Unemployment
    3. Self-employed with a significant reduction in business
    4. Self-employed and business closed
  • Income Change (Currency)
  1. Prior to COVID-19, what was the applicant’s monthly gross income?
  2. What is the applicant’s current monthly gross income?
  3. How much do you estimate your total 2020 (or 2021) income has or will decrease?
  • Unemployment & Job Situation
  1. Was unemployment filed for?
  2. Is the applicant currently receiving unemployment?
    1. Yes
    2. No – Application is Pending
    3. No – Ineligible
  3. Please select one of the following that has contributed to your financial situation:
    1. Job Loss
    2. Temporary Lay Off (Furloughed)
    3. Reduced Hours
    4. Essential Worker Paying Additional Daycare
    5. Small Business Owner
    6. Other (Please explain below)
  • Essay Examples
  1. Please describe your current financial situation and how it has changed from your pre-COVID-19 situation.
  2. How long do you believe it will take for your current financial situation to improve?
  3. Please provide any other information that would be helpful for us to know regarding the impact COVID-19 has had on your family.

The most important thing this financial aid season is to not forget to take care of yourself. Working with financial aid and knowing family burdens on a normal year can be hard, but this year and next year are especially difficult. Plan time off, spend time with family and take a minute to focus on your breathing. Find financial aid forums and support groups that can help lift you up. Just by reading this, you’re educating yourself and trying to do what is best for your families. That’s what matters, so be gentle with yourself. ​You got this – and we’re here with you.

To learn about the FACTS Grant & Aid Assessment platform, visit FACTSmgt.com.

The Personnel Review: An Annual Practice

The following blog was contributed by Cathy Stephen, assistant superintendent of Operational Vitality, Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston.

As Operational Vitality covers finance, function, facilities and funding, making sure that the right personnel is in place is critical to a sustainable and balanced budget. The rule of thumb for school budgeting matches the classic 80/20 rule. Salary and benefits run 80% of the expenses, and tuition and fee collections counter this with 80% of the income. Taking an annual look at the costs and people currently in place helps to determine how to move forward with a strategy for hiring the right people, training current staff to improvement and forecasting the annual budget. Principals must look at enrollment trends and ensure that they have the most qualified, positive people in the positions as there are few, and we need the most excellent people filling them. An annual personnel review is a practice that assists any principal in their budget knowledge and cost controls.

In a world where rising costs are shutting down business, we know that our Catholic schools need to reduce costs while increasing enrollment. We need to have an appropriate amount of staff for instruction and supervision of students. Although the standard timing for a personnel review is January – February, considering this before the end of the fall semester helps our schools move forward in the right direction in the most challenging year we have faced.

Conducting an annual personnel review takes time and attention to detail. Principals need thought-partners (perhaps from the Schools Office) who can assist in tough decision-making when it comes to rethinking the standard 40 hours of work for full-time staff, as well as what positions need to be reduced or cut altogether. Sometimes a thought-partner can challenge the status quo and thinking of a principal, allowing for new ideas and a shake-up of traditional positions. Some of our Catholic schools have no choice if they want to remain open.

Start with building a case for each current staff member. Notate number of years serving there, what their specialty is and what dollar figure they represent in expense to the budget. Ask the questions that help to move them toward offering a new contract for next year. Do we have enough Catholics? Catechist certified teachers? State certified teachers? Is our staff diversified to match the community and student body? What other value-adds do staff members bring to the community? Have they asked for a change in assignment? Do they need one? Can a paraprofessional or ancillary teacher position move from 40 hours to 30 hours for full-time benefits? Begin to match the strongest members of the team to the jobs you know you’ll have next year. Do the math on the salary and benefits of these valued employees. Does this keep you within the 80%? Do open positions require you to hire first year, lower salaried teachers? 

The tough decisions made from this line of thinking actually strengthen the team overall. Some teachers need the change of grade level or assignment to spark their passion again. Newly schooled candidates bring a different set of skills to our schools. A balance of veteran, master teachers and the blessing of a new generation of apprentice teachers can be a marketing message that with traditional values comes a new way of teaching and learning. The budget, too, is all the better for it.

Happy Thanksgiving…Remember to Count Your Blessings!

The following blog was contributed by Kathy Mears, interim president/CEO at the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA) in Arlington, Virginia.

Each November, on the Saturday following Thanksgiving, we begin our Advent and Christmas preparations. While putting out the Advent wreath and putting up the Christmas tree, we watch White Christmas. I enjoy it more than others in my family, but they put up with me.

One of my absolute favorite songs from the movie is “Count Your Blessings.” November is traditionally the month where we give thanks for God’s many blessings, so the song works during Thanksgiving weekend. This year, it would seem like it might be harder to find gratitude. 2020 has kicked us and some days, it is difficult for us to remember the abundance of blessings that God has provided. Yet, the multitude of blessings we enjoy is right in front of us.

The first on my list of blessings is the dedication and commitment of our teachers and school leaders. The love that they show to our children is never ending. They model what it means to be lifelong learners. They show us day after day that they are heroes and saints in the making. We are so grateful for our teachers and school leaders. During this pandemic they have been fantastic, and I am grateful that these particular people have answered God’s call to serve in this wonderful vocation of Catholic education at this moment in time.

Our families are on my gratitude list, too. They have handled the shift from in person teaching and learning, to online teaching and learning, to sometimes online and sometimes in person, to person to person, to online and back again. Their flexibility and willingness to “roll” with us is so very much appreciated. They trust us with their children, and I am very happy that they do.

I am blessed by our students. Their energy, enthusiasm and joy are gifts and thankfully, these gifts are visible to use in the classroom and online. This is a very difficult time for them, yet from all reports, they are trying and showing maturity that not all adults display when met with confusing moments in their lives. Our students continue to learn, to serve and to bring smiles to our faces and for that I am thankful.

Our pastors also bring hope to our work and I thank God for them. Learning to connect to people via Zoom or other platforms is challenging and they meet that challenge in a variety of ways. They are patient and kind. We are indebted to them for their work.

I am grateful for the generosity of many. Catholic schools depend on the generosity of others and although many have fewer financial resources than they did last year, people are still giving of their time, talent and treasure to our schools. We need them and so many are supporting us in every way that they are able.

Finally, I am so very thankful for our NCEA family. Our team has had many surprises and twists and turns this year, but they greet each day with a smile and a desire to serve you. They care about you! Everyone says, “our” schools, “our” teachers, “our principals.” They worry when they hear about a loss in a school community and they join in prayer for you each day. They laugh or cry each day because they care so deeply for our shared vocation. They are truly servant leaders.

My gratitude list is much longer than this, but I will end this blog with words from the song:

If you’re worried,
And you can’t sleep,
Just count your blessings instead of sheep,
And you’ll fall asleep,
Counting your blessings.

I hope you sleep well, counting your blessings. Happy Thanksgiving!

Non-Traditional Instruction of our Lord

The following blog was contributed by Adam P. Zoeller, a member of the theology department at Saint Xavier High School in Louisville, Kentucky.

What is your educational philosophy? Has your educational philosophy changed since you began teaching? Embarking ever so slowly on my 20th year as a theology teacher, sacred scripture continues to be my primary source of inspiration for what I consider to be sound pedagogy. In light of the lessons of the faith of the patriarchs, the challenging words of wisdom literature, and the unconventional teachings of Jesus Christ, my philosophy of education is rooted in scripture. 

The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” (John 3:8). The disruption of the unseen coronavirus on school systems, administrators, teachers, students and parents is seen throughout the country. I find myself soul searching asking the question, where did this come from and where is it going? Teachers have been required to teach in-person, teach remotely or teach in a hybrid model. Flexibility and patience have been essential to navigate through these uncertain times. However, using sacred scripture as my inspiration in light of the pandemic, the opportunity for my craft to evolve is evident and necessary. The Call of Simon the Fisherman from the Gospel of Luke reflects my educational philosophy that has brought comfort and stability throughout teaching this school year. While the crowd was pressing in on Jesus and listening to the word of God, he was standing by the Lake of Gennesaret. He saw two boats there alongside the lake; the fishermen had disembarked and were washing their nets. Getting into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, he asked him to put out a short distance from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. After he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into deep water and lower your nets for a catch.” Simon said in reply, “Master, we have worked hard all night and have caught nothing, but at your command I will lower the nets.” When they had done this, they caught a great number of fish and their nets were tearing. (Luke 5:1-6). The primary lesson of this story is Jesus Christ calling His Apostles and specifically the faith of Saint Peter to respond to discipleship. However, the application of this story to the classroom teacher is focused on not what to do (curriculum), but how to do it (pedagogy). For example, my educational approach during the pandemic has been rebranded to focus on “how to think” and not “what to think.” While navigating on a new online platform and teaching in a hybrid model, I have transitioned to student-centered, project-based learning. My “pedagogical net” has been cast out to enhance the 21st century skills of my students by not focusing on the content for the sake of content, but instead requiring the students in my class to research, apply, analyze, or evaluate the information. 

Perhaps the challenge of teaching amidst the pandemic is to recognize that it is time to rethink the old ways of teaching and move towards a new approach. Which side of the boat are you standing on? Which side of the boat are you looking out? The challenge is not only to cast the nets in a new direction, but to “lower these nets” deep into the theological content in our classroom in order to “tear” our students from the secular world in order to bring them closer to Christ, and be true fishers of men (and women).

About the Author

Adam P. Zoeller is a member of the theology department at Saint Xavier High School in Louisville, KY.  He earned his B.A. in religious studies and B.A. in clinical psychology from Spalding University (Louisville, KY) and his M.Ed. in educational leadership from the University of Cincinnati (Cincinnati, OH).  He holds a Master’s Catechist Certification from the Archdiocese of Louisville.

Adam has presented the following workshops for the National Catholic Educational Association:

  • Practice & the Game: Using Sports Language to Teach the USCCB Curriculum Framework (NCEA Webinar 2017)
  • Media Literacy & Scriptural Exegesis: Essential Skills for 21st Century Religious Educators, (NCEA Convention and Expo 2017)
  • From heart to missionary zeal: Using language and lessons from athletics to aid adolescent catechesis in the New Evangelization, (NCEA Convention and Expo 2018).
  • Framing Brain-Based Learning in High School Theology (NCEA Webinar 2019)

Adam has written the following reflections for NCEA Talk:

  • Paschal Mystery: Storytelling and Media Literacy (September 2016)
  • Personal Litany of the Saints (April 2017)
  • Motion Offense in Basketball. (November 2017)
  • Bully, Victim, and Bystander in light of the Woman Caught in Adultery (July 2018)
  • Searching for God in the MCU (September 2018)
  • The Way (truth and life) of the Cross: Reflecting on the road to Calvary through the temptations of Jesus Christ (March 2019)
  • My Inner Room during the Coronavirus Pandemic (March 2020)

Adam can be reached at azoeller@saintx.com.

Rock Star Principals

The following blog was contributed by Jill Annable, executive director of academic excellence at the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA) in Arlington, Virginia.

I recently ran into an old friend, a fellow Catholic school alum, whose children attend a Catholic school. As we discussed the launch of the most unique school year to date, she candidly shared, “Our principal is a rock star.” I agreed. In her admiration, this parent did not know that her principal has not taken a day off since the pandemic hit; she serves with unwavering passion and is the core of vibrancy of the school.

When I became the assistant superintendent in the Diocese of Grand Rapids, I had never been a school principal. My background is in teaching and curriculum development, and I must admit: I was initially intimidated! I took the first weeks on the job to observe classrooms but also found myself observing principals. It was fascinating. My tunnel vision of classroom life was nothing compared to the scope of principal responsibilities; as a teacher, I had been completely ignorant of school budgets and operational vitality. Now in this seat, positioned to support schools as the assistant superintendent, my internal questioning mirrored what my own children wonder about their principal: “Does she run on coffee alone?” “How does she always know the right answer?” I quickly learned that my role had to be singularly focused: How can I help you?

I focused on this question in my time as assistant superintendent, attempting to lift the work of curriculum and instruction so principals could focus on operations and relationships. It was fulfilling, yet it paled in comparison to what principals were handling on a daily basis.

Not many realize the crises averted and conflicts resolved by Catholic school principals. Parents see how the principal supports their own children, but the sheer volume of personal encounters and supports is unimaginable. The launch of the 2020-2021 school year was no exception. Principals filled their summer with tense brainstorming sessions ranging from safety protocols to instructional practices. They worked late nights, on the phone with parents who were worried about their children’s health, the options our Catholic schools could offer, and concerns much beyond the scope of the school. But how did our principals respond? They delivered. They did not wait for the rest of the world to come up with solutions; they instead rolled up their sleeves and worked tirelessly to ensure Catholic education could continue in the safest ways possible.

When the old friend shared that her principal was a rock star, her next question was, “How can I help?” Reflecting on that moment, and in comparison to my own response years back, I am reminded of the beauty of Catholic school communities. This parent, who already sacrifices financially for her children’s education, seeks to give more. The prayer of St. Francis reminds us “It is in giving that we receive.” We are certainly seeing this in one another during 2020.

The most amazing part of watching principals at work is that I expect, by all laws of nature, to see signs of exhaustion, but it never comes. Instead, they are energized by the ministry. When I explained this to my friend, I encouraged her to pray that God continues to grant grace to those in Catholic school leadership and to perhaps send the principal a note of gratitude.

It is with great admiration that we celebrate this year’s Catholic Principal Appreciation Day on November 19. They are not only rock stars, but also headed to sainthood.