Back to School: Schools seek to enhance their Catholic identity

CHARLESTON — Hallways that have been silent all summer are once again filled with the voices of children as Catholic schools across the state open their doors to a new year.

Notre Dame Sister Julia Hutchison, superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Charleston, said the top priority this year is enhancing the Catholic identity.

She said it is important to stress to parents, educators and the community at large that what is unique about a Catholic education is daily life centered in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

The truth is, students can receive a quality education at a multitude of schools both public and private, she said, but only at Catholic schools can they find quality education intertwined with daily prayer and lessons on morality, charity, confession and Mass.

Of course, improving the quality of academic programs also is a priority.

Last year, diocesan schools ranged from 96 percent to 76 percent on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills.

Sister Julia understands the importance of national, standardized test scores. Parents use them to help evaluate a school when they are trying to decide where to send their child and educators use them to gauge their school’s performance. But she also stresses that in Catholic schools, test scores should not be more important than God.

“The Catholic schools should be characterized by the spirit of the Gospel. That should be its outstanding characteristic. If it’s not, it’s not as good a school as it should be no matter what its test scores are,” she said.

The diocese has 27 elementary schools, two diocesan high schools and two private high schools under their umbrella, and each of them will focus on the promotion of financial viability this year.

To help them meet this goal, the diocese is bringing in Tim Dwyer, associate executive director of the NCEA Department of Chief Administrators of Catholic Education, to present workshops and provide guidance.

Dwyer was instrumental in the development of a series of workshops focusing on the financial management of Catholic schools.

Another part of improving financial well-being is increasing enrollment. Sister Julia said projected enrollment for the 2007-2008 school year is 7,397, up from 7,156 last year. Still, few of the Catholic schools are operating at capacity.

In an effort to fill the classrooms, the Sisters of Charity of Our Lady of Mercy have provided a $10,000 grant to help educate school advisory councils and either the school’s marketing person or selected representative on how to promote their unique qualities.

Schools across the state also will see a number of changes, including implementation of the new safety plan, a new math curriculum, a formal evaluation of principals and an interactive Web site.

Sandra Leatherwood, assistant superintendent, said one of the most exciting changes is an electronic data program that will interpret test scores and allow teachers to address students’ needs on an individual basis. Students will be tested in September with results returned by October so teachers can focus on the strengths and weaknesses of each child.

Another big change is the opening of St. Gregory the Great elementary school and the hiring of three new principals and one interim principal.

Rose Tindall will take the helm at St. Joseph in Columbia. Tindall was the assistant principal at Cardinal Newman high school. She has a bachelor’s degree in education from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh and a master’s in educational administration from the University of South Carolina.

Bonnie Bardin has been named to lead St. Peter in Columbia. Previously, she taught second-grade at Prince of Peace in Taylors for four years. Bardin graduated summa cum laude from Chestnut Hill College, which is a Catholic women’s college in Philadelphia, and received a master’s in school leadership from Furman.

At St. Francis Xavier High School in Sumter, Susan Lavergne moves into the top spot from her position as vice principal and guidance counselor. Lavergne, who has been with St. Francis since it opened 10 years ago, has a master’s degree in education from the University of Southern Mississippi.

In Beaufort, St. Peter will see the return of a familiar face when Bill Gabrielson takes the reins as interim principal. Gabrielson served as the school’s principal from 1996 to 2001 before he retired. The long-time educator, who has spent 45 years in the field, said he accepted the post at the request of Father Ronald Cellini and plans to remain until they find a permanent replacement.