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 | By Cappy O’Halloran

Catholic Schools: Communities of Excellence Guided by Faith

Margaret Dubose has served as superintendent of Catholic schools for the Diocese of Birmingham, headquartered in the Catholic Schools Office (CSO), since 2019. In the past three years, the CSO has begun a systematic approach to optimizing the shared expertise and experience of our 14 diocesan schools, four early learning centers, and four independent Catholic schools. Key to this is a well-researched and documented Strategic Plan for Catholic Education, providing a guideline for ongoing improvement, with regular opportunities for shared diocesan monitoring of progress.

Thinking about Catholic Schools Week, Dubose spoke with Cappy O’Halloran, a member of the Diocesan Advisory Council for Catholic Education, on the role of Catholic education in the diocese and beyond.

Each year, the CSO selects a theme. This year’s is “Communities of Excellence.” Why did you select that?

A: Our annual themes have built on each other and tie in with specific initiatives within our Strategic Plan for Catholic Education. Last year’s theme, “Rooted in Truth,” focused on our schools being rooted in Christ first, the source for our communities to flourish. This year, we link the Catholic school tradition of excellence in faith, academics, and development of the whole person with the calling to ensure that we provide excellent learning environments for the student of today and the student of tomorrow. To do so, we have to think intentionally about our communities in terms of our faith, our academics, our inclusivity, and our diversity, and to think intentionally about how we are involving all members of our communities.

What do you mean by community?

A: It’s common to think about the school community as the school itself, but it’s much broader than that. Our communities of excellence encompass the parish, the Diocese of Birmingham Catholic schools as a whole, the entire diocesan community, and, even more broadly, the Church itself.

You just opened up the word “community” in a big way! Let’s start with the inclusivity aspect.

A: The word “catholic” means “universal,” which, to me, means that Catholic education should be affordable, accessible, and attainable for all who desire it. Recently, for example, we partnered with Mitchell’s Place to help coach teachers in supporting students with behavioral and other challenges. We have also worked with a variety of programs through Notre Dame to help engage families and students whose first language is not English. As economic support, many of our schools have endowments and other funds available for financial assistance, and several Scholarship Granting Organizations (SGOs) provide scholarships to eligible students through the Alabama Accountability Act. Focused through shared goals in our strategic plan, we continue to make progress, a step at a time, in providing inclusive environments.

You also included the parishes and the mother Church in our school community …

A: Catholic education is a crucial component in propagating our Catholic faith. Our Catholic schools form students in our faith and instill in them the habits, discipline, and worldview needed in our society. Viewing our Catholic schools as essential within our parishes, our diocese, and the Church as a whole is vital for the mission of our schools — and for the mission of our Church. And it goes both ways: our schools and students must engage with our parishes and with the Church to view themselves as those future leaders of our faith. Jesus told us to go out and teach — to bring souls to Heaven, to “tell the Good News.” To tell the Good News, we must teach it, and to grow in faith, our students need the communal support of the Church and its liturgy, tradition, and sacraments.

The second word in the theme, “excellence,” also seems open-ended …

A: Well, yes and no. As an educator, I naturally seek ways to “measure” excellence and success, and our Catholic schools go well beyond the typical measures used for schools. Our excellence begins with the commitment and loving spirit of the teachers, principals, pastors, and staff who bring enthusiasm and energy each day to classrooms, athletic fields, studios, and the daily habits and routines of prayer and liturgy. The love and care displayed by our students, staff, and families to each other and in service to our communities are a significant measure. 

Service to our community as a measure of Catholic school success suggests the start of a lifelong attitude ...

A: Yes, I believe some measures may not be recognized until our students enter society and begin to impact their parishes, families, and workplaces. Our schools form students in the idea of life choices as vocational, meaning that whatever the vocation chosen — whether it be religious life, married life, single life, and regardless of career or occupation — their faith is the grounding force that allows them to view those choices in a deeper way and commits them to the path chosen. Their faith is the light guiding that path.

You mentioned that our schools consistently demonstrate more traditional measures of success for excellence in our Catholic schools. What are some highlights?

A: Three key examples out of many possibilities come to mind: 

  • First, the 2022 Cognia Engagement Report for re-accreditation of schools in our diocese posted an incredible overall score of 334.19. This exceeded both our 2015 score of 281.46 and the national average score range of 278.34-283.33. This result and the report’s commendation for mission-focused unity didn’t happen without our schools’ underlying and overriding commitment to excellence.
  • Second, our high school students consistently score above state and national averages on the ACT. Our high school class of 2021 posted an average score of 24, well above the Alabama average of 18.58 and the national average of 20.3.
  • And, third, students in grades 3-9 take the NWEA MAP Growth Assessment, consistently outperforming national norms in all tested subject areas.

All these general measures are consistently joined by achievements on the athletic field and in the arts, in science fairs, scholarships, and so many other areas.

We have talked about a broad Catholic community dedicated to — and demonstrating — excellence. That is reason enough to be proud of our schools, yet, somehow, you seem to take that further …

A: Yes, I do. The Diocese of Birmingham’s Catholic schools belong to all of us within the geographic region of our diocese, and we, as a diocese, should be nothing but proud of the excellence they each have attained and produced. There’s been so much momentum in our schools over the past few years, especially, as we have worked together to implement our diocesan strategic plan — and as we’ve worked to tell the broader community of our successes. I hope you will join in spreading the good news of the successes of our schools and pray for our schools in their sacred mission to bring Christ to the world. 

Supporting the Catholic schools mission

There are many ways for anyone in the diocese to engage with our schools. Attend your local school events, when you can. Consider sharing your time and talents as a volunteer. If you wish to give financially, the Faith in Education Endowment and Fund is one way. Deferring your tax credits to a Scholarship Granting Organization helps provide access to Catholic education for students with financial need, as does donating to a school’s endowment or the Kathleen Ganey Scholarship Fund. And, as noted earlier, consider a gift to your local school.

On a spiritual level, your support is always hugely important and deeply appreciated. Please consider praying the prayer below daily for all Catholic schools in the Diocese of Birmingham in Alabama.

A Prayer for Catholic Schools

By Cindy Westbrook

Christ, our Teacher, You said,     “Let the children come to Me, and do not hinder them, for the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to such as these.” Thank you for the gift of Catholic schools where children come to praise and adore You, our heavenly Father, striving to live Gospel values enlightened by the Holy Spirit to grow in virtue. O Holy Family, guard and protect the hearts and minds of our students. Inspire educators to create a climate of love, joy, and sacredness within all Catholic schools. Bless and guide our families who daily give witness to the gift of Catholic education. Deepen our commitment to love and serve You and others as we build the Kingdom of God. Amen. 

Margaret Dubose has served as superintendent of the Catholic Schools Office of the Diocese of Birmingham in Alabama since July 2019. A lifelong participant in Catholic education as both student and leader, she has served in Catholic and public education as an administrator, reading specialist, and teacher. Before moving to Birmingham, she worked in both school and diocesan administration for the Catholic Diocese of Jackson in Mississippi, where she directed curriculum and instruction. Dubose holds master’s degrees in educational leadership and in curriculum and instruction.