When Bill Crist took office as superintendent of the Catholic schools of the diocese March 10, his first priority was to “get to know the schools and the principals, [to] understand a little bit more about Catholic education and how the infusion of the Catholic faith is placed within a school setting. It’s been absolutely a revelation in so many ways,” he recently told the Sun.
Since March, Crist has traveled the seven counties, visiting each of the diocese’s 22 schools and meeting with students, parents, principals and teachers. It’s been a whirlwind, he said, but a good one.
Crist came to the office with 32 years of experience in public schools, nearly all that time in Oswego County. He started his career as an instrumental music teacher and band director, first at the elementary level, then at the middle school level for 17 years. Following positions as department chair and in building administration and personnel and human resources, Crist served for five years as superintendent of the Oswego City School District. After leaving that position in 2013, he briefly served as interim superintendent of the Massena Central School District.
The experience of leading a Catholic school system has been much different from his previous experience in public schools, Crist said, and not just because the diocese’s roughly 5,000 students are spread across such a large geographic area.
Working “to provide a very high quality educational system that has high expectations, and blending that first and foremost with Catholic identity, with Catholic faith infused in every part of the school day and curriculum, has been a wonderful experience,” he said.
Crist says he has found much to be proud of in the diocese’s schools. Having some 5,000 students enrolled “speaks volumes to the families who are interested in and expecting a quality education from our Catholic schools,” he said. The teachers and administrators, who are “incredibly devoted and committed to providing an exceptional Catholic education,” are another point of pride. One-hundred percent graduation rates, varied programmatic offerings and a solid integration of technology also make his list.
But, Crist said, there are big challenges as well.
There are about half as many Catholic schools in the diocese now as there were in 1985, he pointed out, and “slowing or stopping a declining enrollment” is a priority.
“We do have to do a better job of really sending the message of what successes we enjoy and what good work is happening in Catholic education. Not only a good, but an outstanding, education can be had in our Catholic schools, [one] that is surrounded by the Catholic faith and the teachings of the gospel,” he said.
“Financial access” can hamper families from being able to consider Catholic education, Crist said, and “we need to better send the message that financial assistance is available to families,” noting that close to $1 million in financial aid was provided to students last year. Yet still more needs to be done “in terms of identifying development sources — both for tuition assistance and scholarships, but also for infrastructure and capital improvements to our buildings and facilities.”
Crist also said he wants to make sure Catholic schools graduates “are, as aligned with the Common Core, college- or career-ready and able to go out into the world beyond high school and excel in colleges of choice… [or] if they choose to go into a career, that they are equipped to be successful in those careers.”
Work toward these goals will continue throughout the summer, Crist said. Principals and teachers will have opportunities for curriculum and professional development, capital and technological improvement projects will take place at several of the schools, and administrators will continue work to address transportation challenges faced by outlying schools. Crist said he personally will use the summer to “better understand the ropes” and to work more closely with pastors and parishes throughout the diocese. (He’ll also take some time to play his trumpet with the Mario DeSantis Orchestra and to hike some of the Adirondack high peaks with his son and nephews, he said.)
With four months behind him and a new school year just a summer away, Crist has his sights set high. He envisions a Catholic school system with upwards of 8,000 students, where endowments could help virtually any child attend Catholic school, where relationships between schools and parishes are strong, where all students are able to “share the teachings of the Catholic Church and the gospel and the teachings of Jesus Christ as being the foundation of who they are, what they are, as they go beyond our Catholic schools.”
“It’s possible,” he said. “We’ve got to raise the bar.”