July 10, 2003
Success for Schools
By Howie Mansfield
The first year of strategic management planning, provided by Catholic School Management, Inc. exceeded all expectations. After more than 12 months of long nights, weekend meetings and limited personal time, members of each school’s strategic planning committee have earned a well-deserved break.
Father Charles Vavonese, diocesan assistant superintendent of Catholic schools, praised the work of all schools. “As we have been told from the beginning, this isn’t the most efficient way but it’s the most effective one,” he said. “Each group is beginning to see its school in a more global sense. The process is exhausting, but to see the level of understanding in all of the groups now is well worth the time.” Planning committees now have a vested interest in the success of Catholic schools for years to come. Once the three year goals and first year objectives are met, members could potentially walk away from their work. Father Vavonese said many parents, faculty and community members who make up the committees want to have their hands in the future of the school. “I’m impressed with the commitment of these committees. They do understand the complexities of the life of the school,” said Father Vavonese. “The roles have shifted. It’s not just the administration and Catholic Schools Office that are making all of the decisions.”
As a deadline loomed for many schools with budgetary concerns over the last few months, strategic planning committees played a major part. “The example of St. James School in the Valley is most striking. They had a difficult financial situation and the strategic planning committee came together. They came to a solution because of identifying the problems,” Father Vavonese said. “I’ve never seen a school in a situation such as St. James’ come out of it. St. Patrick’s School in Oneida and all the Utica schools had financial problems, but the strategic planning gave them greater confidence that they could solve their problems.”
Father Vavonese explained that many schools had an exceptional first year of the strategic management process. Some schools, even with a slow start, finished strong, including St. James School in Syracuse and Trinity Catholic in Oswego, said Father Vavonese. “It’s with a great deal of pride that we sit here after one year and realize that we are extending the Kingdom of God. We have taken our diocesan schools to a whole different level,” he said.
Sister Patricia Coyle, MFIC, principal of St. Thomas Aquinas School in Binghamton, said the first year has gone well. “I think the process was excellent. It causes us to focus on the issues. The parents got right into it and we began to focus on making improvements,” Sister Patricia said. “The committee members brought a great deal of professionalism from their own jobs to this group, and they have set up very reasonable goals and objectives. We had honest comments and practical proposals for how to move forward.” St. Thomas Aquinas School was in its first year after merging with Blessed Sacrament School in Johnson City. Sister Patricia said Blessed Sacrament School used to be aligned with St. James Middle School in Johnson City, but this year St. Thomas began to focus on its responsibilities with them. “We made the decision to cut our fourth grade because St. James is a fourth through eighth grade school and we have blended our PTO’s together,” said Sister Patricia. “We want to promote a one-school, two-campus concept. We are already working with St. James’ teachers to make the transition as smooth as possible for students. St. James and St. Thomas Schools have already had Masses together and other activities to bridge the transition socially.”
Sister Patricia said Steven Virgadamo, senior advancement consultant for Catholic School Management, was extremely helpful throughout the year. “Steve kept us more focused. We have a very clear mandate of what we need to do — a very clear direction,” she said. “We can fine tune things as we go along, so we aren’t floundering. We will be a better school, year by year, because of the strategic planning.” Sister Patricia said all of the accolades for this year’s success should go to the parents. “It was the good will of the parents. I give them all the credit. They had great faith and good will during this process,” said Sister Patricia. “I admit that this process helped us. The parents have established ownership — this is their school. They have been very good about having a voice through the whole year.”
Father Vavonese said unlike other consultants who have worked with the diocese, Catholic School Management has raised the bar to a new level. “This process is not a cookie cutter approach. Catholic School Management has been critical in redefining how a consultant meets the schools’ needs. People just have to trust the system. The procedures are outlined and you have to follow them to the letter right now,” said Father Vavonese.
More Catholic schools will join the strategic planning next year, and the schools who finished year one will move onto strategic communication for the second year and onto their annual appeal in the third year before starting the cycle over again. Father Vavonese is very optimistic about the future. “We are giving them the tools for the toolbox,” he said. “Once we get through one complete cycle, we will start again. We will bring in new needs the school has and it will be easier to address them. This is a great model. It will be the new vehicle for how schools will be run in this diocese.”