Diocesan schools face tough hurdles

CHARLESTON — Youths across the state packed up their bathing suits and dusted off their alarm clocks as schools opened their doors to a new year.  

The Diocese of Charleston has 31 schools and each has its individual goals for the 2008-09 school year, but they also have a number of objectives in common, such as achieving Southern Association of Colleges and Schools accreditation.

Sister Julia Hutchison, superintendent of Catholic schools, said SACS accreditation affirms that a school provides quality education, and noted that accreditation is a routine concern of parents.

“If you are accredited, it is instant confirmation that the school is meeting academic standards,” she said.

This year, each school will receive an evaluation on where they are in the SACS accreditation process. Some are farther along than others, and the diocesan office will do what it can to help those institutions tie up loose ends.

As for the schools that haven’t started, Sister Julia said they will help those principals identify what criteria must be met and establish a plan-of-action and a timeline to reach their goal.

So far, St. Peter, St. John Neumann and Cardinal Newman in Columbia, St. Mary Help of Christians in Aiken, and Bishop England in Charleston are the only SACS accredited schools.

A number of schools are accredited by South Carolina Independent Schools Association.

The tough thing about accreditation for parochial schools is that it isn’t just about academics; they must maintain their Catholic identity in the process, Sister Julia said.

“Catholic schools have to be top-drawer,” she said. “It’s a moral obligation, not just an academic obligation.”

Another important benchmark for diocesan schools is the continuation of the strategic-planning process to better market Catholic schools to the community.

Last year, they focused on improving awareness at the local level, and Sister Julia said she hopes that promotion will result in increased enrollment this year.

For 2008-09, the objective is to create a tagline and logo that people will instantly identify with Catholic schools. Think Nike and the Just Do It campaign, only on a smaller scale.

Jay Gould, of Advancement Counsel for Catholic Schools, will facilitate the two-pronged process of creating statewide awareness plus a strong affinity for the local Catholic school.  

Sister Julia said they want people to realize that paying for a Catholic education is worth the sacrifice.

The diocesan office also has a slew of seminars and speakers that will address a variety of topics with teachers, principals and pastors.

At the top of the list are:

Mike Patin speaking on his message that all teachers are teachers of religion.
The conclusion of the Echoes in Faith enrichment program that provided a refresher on Catholicism for teachers.
The promotion of chastity and the value of living a chaste life.
School finance and solid budgetary practices.  
The role of school advisory councils.
Sister Angela Shaugnessey on the implications of non-public school law.
Contemporary cultural realities, such as the impact charter schools make on parochial schools.
“We have a lot to do, and none of it is extraneous,” Sister Julia said.    

Members of the schools’ office also will visit schools throughout the year to check on their compliance with the Virtus program.   

The diocese also has moved forward on plans for two new high schools, one for Beaufort County and another to serve the parishes of Pawleys Island, Conway, Garden City, Georgetown, Myrtle Beach and North Myrtle Beach.

A number of schools have expressed  interest in the Options program, which is designed to provide an inclusive education to students with special needs, and Sister Julia said she would like to see it grow. She noted that Cardinal Newman hopes to add the Options program to their curriculum when the school moves to its new site.

So far, Bishop England High School  is the only one with the program. In its second year, the program has two new students in the freshman class and three returning sophomores.

One place where marketing at the local level has shown strong results is St. Gregory the Great School in Bluffton. It opened last year and added the sixth grade for a total of 182 students this year. The next two years will bring the addition of seventh and eighth grades, school officials said.