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CURRENT ISSUE:  September 17, 2007   •   VOL. 45, NO. 16   •   Oakland, CA

Diocese unveils urban school plan

Students at St. Jarlath School in Oakland enjoy the schoolÍs playground during the first week of September. The school is one of eight invited to join a new diocesan schoolsÍ consortium.


Consortium will focus on finances,
marketing and curriculum help

Hoping to prevent more Catholic school closures and the giving over of classroom space to charter schools, the Oakland Diocese’s new school superintendent has unveiled a plan to help struggling schools remain open and flourish both academically and financially. The plan is based on a successful consortium model used for the past 10 years in Washington. D.C.

Rick Kruska, who succeeded former superintendent Mark De Marco in July, said the new Oakland Catholic Schools Consortium will function as a “one stop” administrative umbrella to take the pressure off principals so that they can concentrate on academic performance. Consortium staff will manage finances and facilities, development and marketing, curriculum standardization, purchasing consolidation, and personnel.

“This arrangement will allow teachers and principals to focus on student education and development,” Kruska said, emphasizing that it will “create ways for people and schools to grow and shine so they will be here 200 years from now.”


Other joint efforts have
benefitted school financing

The Catholic Schools Consortium plan is not the first time the Oakland Diocese has created a program to assist struggling schools.

In 1978, it developed a tuition-assistance program called Family Aid — Catholic Education (FACE) which provides tuition grants to needy students so that they could attend Catholic schools in Alameda and Contra Costa counties. FACE raises funds from local individuals, businesses and philanthropic organizations to provide partial tuition assistance.

Last year, FACE awarded a total of $1.85 million in tuition grants to 612 elementary students and 302 high schoolers.

In 1988, a group of nine principals organized a consortium they called CHOICE (Consortium of Hope for Oakland Inner City Schools) to raise funds for their schools. It functioned for several years before disbanding, said Mission San Jose Dominican Sister Mary Brennan, who served as CHOICE’s chief fundraiser during its early years. Holy Names Sister Barbara Nixon was the group’s director during its last 24 months.

Sister Brennan said that while the vision of supplementing tuition was good, the reality of getting enough funds from foundations and private donors was less than what the group had envisioned. She is now executive director for advancement at the School of the Madeleine in Berkeley.

Sister Nixon, now the principal of St. Elizabeth Seton School in Palo Alto, said that CHOICE had to face what every other struggling non-profit with the same mission comes up against — there weren’t enough foundations and donors to give to every group seeking help.

And with the funds CHOICE did raise, “When you try to divide by nine, the money doesn’t go very far,” she said.

When told of the diocese’s newest consortium model, with its centralized support staff, Sister Brennan said that “it sounds about five steps ahead of us.”

While finances were always a problem with CHOICE, the group still pulled together in other ways, said Sister Nixon. “When something terrible happened at one school, the principal could get moral support from the other principals,” she said. CHOICE also helped to give inner city schools a greater visibility within the diocese, she added.


The consortium will cost $200,000 per year to operate and will be financed through national and local foundation grants as well as fund raisers, said Kruska

Eight schools have been invited to participate in the voluntary program. Another two have expressed interest. The present invitees are: Our Lady of the Rosary in Union City, St. Barnabas in Alameda, St. Cornelius in Richmond, and St. Anthony, St. Elizabeth, St. Jarlath and St. Martin de Porres, all in Oakland.

Gerald and Marilyn Marchi, recently retired principals at St. Felicitas School in San Leandro and St. Philip Neri School in Alameda respectively, designed the consortium’s organizational model.

Linda Remington, school board president, said the board hired the Marchis for July through September 2007 to prepare the groundwork and to reach out to financially stressed schools that have received diocesan subsidies for the past several years. Besides the subsidy piece, she said that other criteria for consortium membership take into account those parishes which are struggling financially while simultaneously trying to support their parochial schools.

The new plan began taking shape in August 2006 when DeMarco and the board created a task force to evaluate opportunities for improving schools, Remington explained. In November, the task force met with Bishop Allen Vigneron to explore what possible approaches might look like.

This February, after detailed research and numerous consultation telephone calls to directors of successful Catholic consortium models in Indianapolis and Washington, D.C., the task force recommended a diocesan consortium modeled after the D.C. program. Last May, the diocesan priest consulters approved the plan.

Superintendent Kruska hopes to hire the consortium’s executive director by October. Three additional directors in charge of finances, development, and academics will be in place by January 2008, he said. Their first joint assignment will be to increase enrollment for the 2008-2009 school year.

Consortium personnel will assume the time-consuming responsibilities that distract principals and teachers from focusing on academic excellence, professional development, student achievement and faith formation, Kruska said.

The finance director will be in charge of budgeting, accounting, tuition collection, accounts payable, payroll, and capital planning for participating schools. The purchase of supplies and educational materials and the management of janitorial services and school maintenance will also be handled by the finance director.

First grade teacher Shannon Jordan reviews flash cards with C.J. Crowell Jr., 6, and Andre Trong, 6, at St. Jarlath School in Oakland.


The director of academics will recruit and hire principals and other senior staff and design programs to enhance both students’ achievement and teachers’ professional growth. The marketing director will create methods for increasing enrollment and write grant applications to support the consortium.

The participating schools will share resources and curriculum programs, such as the Bay Area Math Project, and programs to strengthen Catholic identity, including religion curriculum, liturgical worship, moral development, service learning and social justice.

Kruska said enriched academics are the key to success. When a school’s curriculum improves, parents notice and are more inclined to send their children to that school. More tuition-paying students create more financial stability which, in turn, takes some of the stress off pastors and parishes struggling with whether they can afford to keep their schools.

“This is a change in perspective,” said Kruska, who argues against the prevailing wisdom that money alone is the answer to growing good schools. Instead, he said, the core of the matter is providing equal academic excellence on every Catholic campus within the diocese.

Most of the consortium staff probably will not be housed in the school department’s central offices, but rather at some of the participating schools. This will create visibility and accessibility by “walking the hallways,” relating to the teachers and children, Kruska said.

He is asking schools for a three to five year commitment to give them the opportunity to “flourish and shine academically.”

Such success has already happened in Washington, D.C. with the Archdiocesan Center City Consortium, created in 1997, according to its web site. Fourteen Catholic schools began using common math and reading curriculum and following learning standards that had worked well in Indianapolis Catholic schools.

Ten years later, the consortium has seen a large improvement in student achievement and faculty support. Average reading scores rose more than 50 percent from 2000-2005, and math scores rose 78 percent.
Teacher turnover dropped from 50 percent in 2000 to 10 percent in 2005. The consortium serves approximately 2,400 students through eighth grade, nearly a third of whom receive federally funded tuition vouchers.

Gerry Marchi said that enrollment overall has increased in the D.C. consortium, but he did not have exact figures.

Marchi and Kruska are encouraging the invited schools to commit to the consortium by Oct. 1. But less than a month out from the deadline, principals and pastors still had questions and had not yet signed on.

They gave voice to their concerns during an informational meeting held Aug. 30 at St. Jarlath School.

Sister Barbara Dawson, president of St. Martin De Porres School, was worried that schools will lose their individual identities. “Will the unique character of each school be preserved?” she asked. Sister Dawson, a member of the Religious of the Sacred Heart, wanted to know how the division of finances would work. If her school has a fund raiser, does the money stay there? And what happens to the money that comes in from a large consortium fundraiser?

Kruska assured the nun that each school would be encouraged to retain its own particular character — which is part of the “identity product” which can attract new families. Money from individual fund raisers will stay at the school while the money from a consortium fundraiser, such as a golf tournament, would go into the general fund.

Mission San Jose Dominican Sister Rose Marie Hennessy, principal of St. Elizabeth School, said her school’s strongest outreach is to students with special needs and services. Would the school’s development director be able to stay focused upon raising money for these services? Kruska said “yes.” The consortium’s development person will not interfere with individual school’s fundraising projects, he said.

Holy Names Sister Barbara Bray, assistant superintendent, said the consortium will save schools money in the long run. For example when purchasing computers, she said, “Vendors won’t even talk to one school because vendors prefer to work with groups of eight to ten. So signing on to the consortium could save schools thousands of dollars.”

Savings could also occur when tapping into such local programs as the Bay Area Math Project and reading and writing programs for teachers. The more schools to participate, the less cost to each.

Kathy Capra, principal of St. Jarlath., said her school is already sharing in-service training sessions with St. Anthony, St. Bernard, and St. Barnabas schools. They have also held combined math days for teachers with All Saints School in Hayward.

“Sharing ideas and expenses is really a great way for schools to work together as educators to strengthen our products,” she told The Voice.

Both Sister Hennessy and Sister Dawson said they hoped the consortium would take into account the ethnic identities of families when developing recruitment strategies. Both nuns also urged more cultural diversity on the diocesan school board to match the ethnic makeup of the East Bay. The white male model no longer works, said Sister Hennessy.

At the end of the meeting, Father Jayson Landeza, pastor of St. Columba Parish, said he was cautiously optimistic about what he heard. His parish is in Deanery 13, where most of his St. Martin De Porres School students live.

“This plan could enable us to work together to address core issues of sustainability,” he said. But he expressed concern about schools’ ability to retain their autonomy and their already successful ways of marketing to new students. “Sister Barbara Dawson already has a marketing program which works,” he said. In the past four years, St. Martin de Porres has doubled its enrollment from 94 to 200.

A centralized consortium model “is probably not a bad thing, because it’s better than having everyone on their own,” Sister Dawson said. But ultimately, she observed, the question remains: “What will best serve the needs of our children?”


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