New school year, new opportunities for Rhode Island’s Catholic schools

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PROVIDENCE — As students return to their classes at Catholic schools across Rhode Island, teachers and administrators prepare for a busy year as they renew their efforts to offer an up-to-date, faith-based education to the thousands of students in grades K–12 enrolled in Catholic schools in the Diocese of Providence.

Daniel Ferris, superintendent of schools for the diocese, offered a look ahead at the priorities of Rhode Island’s Catholic schools during the 2017-2018 academic year as they continue to improve their academic competitiveness while remaining rooted in the foundation of the Catholic faith.

“In terms of mission and Catholic identity, we realize that the core mission of any Catholic school is evangelization and catechesis and we believe that role for the Catholic schools in the diocese is more critical than it has been in generations,” said Ferris.

As many families are moving away from strong involvement at the parish level, Catholic schools have become increasingly important centers for catechesis and education in the faith. According to Ferris, the Catholic School Office is encouraging all schools within the diocese to create a plan for their Catholic mission and identity and offering professional development opportunities to better train teachers in catechetical formation.

“What we’re trying to do now is to provide greater resources for the schools,” he said. “We’re really looking for opportunities to inspire, to provide a spiritual retreat, a sacramental encounter with the Lord.”

As part of their Catholic mission, Ferris indicated schools are also seeking ways to better include students with learning differences, an area where Catholic schools across the country have sometimes been criticized for their lack of available resources. In October, a recently-formed advisory committee on exceptional learners will meet to discuss best practices and opportunities for improving services for students who require special attention, including those who experience a learning difference but do not have a definable disability.

“We will be looking at models of other Catholic schools locally, regionally and nationally, professional development opportunities and how to best marshal resources that are available to students through state and local resources,” said Ferris.

He pointed to the St. Raphael Academy Benilde Program as an example of a model that may be adapted for use at other schools. The program integrates students with special learning needs into the school’s regular classes but offers additional advising and summer learning opportunities to ensure they are successful in a high school environment. In this way, all students are able to participate in a Catholic education but are offered specialized instruction to meet their learning needs.

“The reason I mention this under mission is we believe it’s part of our mission to be available, affordable and accessible to all parents who want a Catholic education for their children,” said Ferris. “They need to have the same rich, faith-filled opportunity to hear the gospel as other children in a Catholic school have.”

Local Catholic schools are also moving forward in the area of academic excellence, most notably through the continued development of a K–12 standards-based curriculum across the diocese. This curriculum, which is being developed by the Catholic School Office over several years, will serve to better link elementary and high school education and ensure that students are better prepared as they graduate from Catholic elementary schools.

“We want to be able to say that any student leaving a Catholic elementary school of the Diocese of Providence should know this because we have a standards-based curriculum,” explained Ferris.

Schools in the diocese have also moved to support blended learning, the use of online resources and tools to supplement teacher instruction in the classroom. Conferences and professional development for teachers continue to increase opportunities to integrate technology in the classroom and expand digital literacy education for both teachers and students.

Another development for school administrators in the Diocese of Providence is the introduction of a Certificate of Graduate Studies in Catholic School Leadership at Salve Regina University, a new program designed to foster skills specific to Catholic school administration in principals and aspiring principals. The program’s first class began their studies at the Salve Regina University campus in July and will continue with online coursework during the year before completing the program in summer of 2018.

Lee Ann Nunes, who began serving as principal at St. Margaret School, Rumford, during the 2016-2017 school year, is among the administrators from the Diocese of Providence enrolled in the course.

“Meeting down in Newport was a great opportunity for us to touch base with other principals who are in the same situation as we are and to really all work together,” she said. “It’s been a great opportunity to get to know other principals as well as the benchmarks, the standards that we’re supposed to be following.”

According to Ferris, schools within the diocese also continue to emphasize safety and security, including the fostering of a safe school culture, as well as operational vitality in an increasingly competitive educational environment.

Initiatives such as diocesan scholarship programs and the push for the expansion of the state corporate scholarship tax credit program seek to ensure affordability for families and the continued success of schools.

“It’s always to help our schools maintain a competitive advantage in a dwindling marketplace,” he said. “We really put a high priority on our schools.”