Leaders meet on high schools
Summit centered on present and future issues
Even though the 11 Catholic high schools in the Diocese of Pittsburgh have unique traditions, they share a common mission to educate students to be responsible, productive and faith-filled adults. It was with that common calling in mind that the diocese recently brought together leaders for a High School Education Summit.
Dr. Robert Paserba, former Catholic schools superintendent and newly appointed secretary for Catholic education and evangelization, called for the July summit to address issues affecting the high schools now and into the future.
Invited to the summit, he said, were the schools' board chairmen, or his or her designee, Bishop David Zubik, presidents and principals, diocesan staff who sit on high school boards of directors and staff from the Department for Catholic Schools.
"Basically, those who are most associated with the high schools were invited from all 11," Paserba said.
He said the summit's objectives were three-fold: discussing how the schools' leadership is organized (president/principal or principal/assistant principal models), all with a board of directors, and the issues involved; preparations for upcoming teachers' union negotiations; and how the schools will be impacted by the new Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic High School.
He said the summit's first two days (July 9-10) dealt with strategic planning at all 11 schools, comparing "what's happening at the local level and what the diocese was planning."
Members of high school boards of directors were encouraged to examine their organizational charts to determine the best model for their situation. The diocese has organizational templates that the schools can use, Paserba said.
The next two days (July 11-12) focused on upcoming negotiations with the Federation of Pittsburgh Diocesan Teachers, whose contract with eight of the high schools expires next August.
"Fortunately there has been a great relationship with the federation, and with the president, Mr. (Russell) Del Vecchio, and I working cooperatively for the good of the entire system of Catholic schools," Paserba said. "So I don't anticipate any other issues except what rose to the surface from the two days at the summit. Everyone gave tremendous input on what they thought was important."
He shared with the high school officials a survey he had prepared in which he asked them about priorities when negotiating the next union contract. Working groups were formed during the summit and the priorities were further refined to determine options for the negotiations.
The two remaining days of the summit (July 17 and 19) were dedicated to instilling a spirit of understanding and cooperation among the schools that will be most impacted by the opening of Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic High School.
"The most important thing was, over this brief period of time to make certain that the individual comments that have been made over the last two or three years about concerns and issues and ideas, that if we could, in all honesty, put them out on the table where other people can hear them, too.
"They were quite willing to share their frustrations, their joys, their hopes, even with whom they see as competitors," Paserba said. "It became more of a cooperative togetherness as each day went by, because as some people said, that was really honest, it was authentic, it was transparent."
He first invited officials from St. Joseph, Quigley and North Catholic high schools to talk about the impact of the new school, which is set to open in fall 2014.
Then he "brought Bishop Canevin and Seton-LaSalle together because they draw upon the same geographic area, if you will, and as we said, much of what we wanted to do during the summit was to try to get as much as we could into a much more cooperative mode than a competitive mode, and that was the basic theme of the summit."
The discussions centered on ways to improve and enhance the existing high schools so they are better prepared for when the new school opens its doors.
"Right now we have about 4,000 students in grades nine through 12 in the 11 schools. Back to the cooperative effort rather than the competitive, the question was why couldn't we have 4,500 students? Why can't we have 5,000 students?" Paserba said.
He is excited about Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic, which he described as a comprehensive high school suitable for a wide range of students, from those advancing to post-secondary education, the world of work, the military or to Ivy League universities."
With a maximum enrollment set at 1,000, the new school will have a STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) program enhanced by partnerships with businesses in the northern Allegheny/southern Butler area.
"I'm organizing right now -- and I hope it to be up and running by Sept. 1 -- the Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic High School Education Planning Commission, and it will be 20 to 25 people who are professionals and interested in making certain that between Sept. 1 and Dec. 31 of 2012, that we put out exactly what our educational program will be for grades nine through 12," Paserba said. "It will, in fact, be all of the things that we're talking about, and everyone will know that if they enroll their children at this school they will be at one of the finest Catholic institutions in the country."
His goal is to enroll almost all students for the new school by fall 2013, a year earlier than the school will open, in order to ready them for the new facility.
"It's going to be fabulous. And with the Marianists behind us, and with companies behind us, and, of course, with our bishop providing the leadership, we'll be marketing that school so the students can begin enrolling this spring for Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic High School."
Bishop Zubik, Father Lengwin and Paserba -- the three who comprise the board of members of the diocesan schools corporation -- will discuss the list of recommendations that were formulated at the summit.
Overall, the summit exceeded his expectations, Paserba said.
"That was the best thing that occurred, the input that people gave. It is now our responsibility to follow up appropriately and in a timely manner with the recommendations that were presented to us.
'These are challenging times'
Two local educational leaders commented recently on the High School Education Summit.
Tim Chirdon, principal of Serra Catholic, attended the summit with Diane DiNardi, school president, along with the board chair and treasurer:
"I firmly believe that the way in which Dr. Paserba led the summit provided for far greater understanding of each high school's operation, challenges and goals. Furthermore, the summit led to a new spirit of cooperation moving forward.
"The unique nature of each school was clearly apparent. Yet, at the end of the day, we all seem to have similar objectives and methods by which those goals can be attained.
"Certainly, this is a time of unprecedented change for the Catholic high schools. The addition of Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic High School will have an impact on us all. By working together, while maintaining each school's unique identity, there is new opportunity to make premier secondary Catholic education available."
Christian Brother Robert Schaefer, principal of Central Catholic, attended four days of the summit with James Gordon, chairman of the school's board of directors:
"From the start of the summit, Bishop Zubik and Dr. Paserba stressed that Catholic high schools in the diocese share an essential role in the mission of the church. During the course of the summit, a strong sense of a common mission of service to the young people entrusted to our care was very evident. Each school has a unique history and culture, but all of us share the commitment to Catholic education. The time together strengthened the bonds of community among the Catholic high school communities.
"The vision and enthusiasm of Dr. Paserba was a great encouragement to the school leaders who were present. These are challenging times for Catholic high schools throughout the United States, but the well-thought-out structure of the summit and the insights of many different stakeholders offered great confidence for our future. This was a proactive and forward-looking summit that reflects the incredible history of Catholic education in Pittsburgh and will ensure our viability and vitality for years to come.