Keeping the Faith

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"The big difference between the public and Catholic schools is the discipline. ... You can use God and Jesus in Catholic schools in the discipline."

Henry Fiore,
Assistant Principal,
Cranston-Johnson Catholic Regional high school

Officials at the Diocese of Providence realized as much in the early 1990s when a series of retirements left them looking for qualified people to fill principalships at a number of schools.

Although the typical application review revealed whether the candidate could handle the administrative duties required, it also said little about the candidate's faith and how willing and effective he or she would be in the role of ministering to others.

"You would put an ad in the paper, and the only way we'd know them would be through references, resumes, interviews or by checking with previous employers," says Sister Sheila Durante, the school system's assistant superintendent and the coordinator of the leadership-training program. "So you'd be sending them out to run the schools without knowing much about them."

That's when Durante realized how much the diocese needed a leadership-training program, both to train prospective principals in the mission of Catholic schools and to give the diocese a chance to judge a candidate's ability to be a faith leader.

Applicants to the program start with many of the same credentials needed to work in public school administration in Rhode Island. The diocese requires five years of teaching experience and a master's degree in school administration or the willingness to earn one while in the program.

The diocese prefers that candidates teach in their own system for two years first, but it requires--with no exception--that each candidate be a practicing Catholic. Applicants must present a letter from their priest along with the usual resume and references. Even those raised as Catholics who strayed from the church may be disqualified. The diocese, for instance, has turned away a few applicants who were divorced but whose marriages were not annulled.

The program was designed with an eye to the future. Currently, Providence still has nuns leading five of its 10 high schools and 19 of its 52 elementary schools.

"We probably have more religious [principals] than most, but the reality is that in five years we could have none," says Brother William Dygert, the superintendent of Catholic schools for the Providence Diocese.

"We're now looking at the reality of lay people training lay people in religious traditions. That's something the church hasn't had to do for maybe 1,000 years."

Leonard DeFiore,
National Catholic Educational Association

The same trend holds true nationally. In the United States, lay people make up about 53 percent of the principals in Catholic elementary schools and about 38 percent in Catholic high schools. With many nuns nearing retirement age, those percentages are likely to jump in a few years.

"We're now looking at the reality of lay people training lay people in religious traditions. That's something the church hasn't had to do for maybe 1,000 years," says Leonard DeFiore, who last year became the NCEA's first lay president. "If we miss a generation, it could be near fatal."

Round admits that when she began planning her career she hardly envisioned her current position. Though she earned an education degree from Rhode Island College in 1975, she'd planned to work in the school system she knew best: the public schools. But she graduated into a tough job market and wound up working at her father's jewelry manufacturing business for several years.

Her personal exposure to parochial schools began when she transferred her oldest daughter from a public elementary school to a Catholic one.

Satisfied with the change, she wound up sending all four of her children to parochial schools.

Eventually, she started working as a substitute teacher in her children's school and at nearby public schools. She says she noticed a stark contrast between the two worlds. In the parochial schools, "the children were not out to get you. They were welcoming," she says.

"I remember at one point I went into a public school, and someone looked at me and said, 'Just remember, you're not here to teach, you're here to discipline,'" Round says. "That made a lasting impression on me."

However, not all of Round's public school experiences were negative. She says she highly values the education she received at the academically charged Classical High. She also recognizes there are some Catholic schools that are not very successful. But the difference she sees is in the ideals of the two systems.

As Ciriello explains it, the public schools treat parents and students as clients, whereas the Catholic schools treat them as "God's children."

"I think the only place you can really teach holistically is in a faith-based school," Round says. "When you go into a Catholic school, you feel the personality of Jesus. He was a friendly person, a hard worker, and he had high expectations of those around him."

Round has now been teaching 2nd grade at Bishop McVinney for five years. Working at the urban school in southeast Providence has taught her something else about her own values.

"I never thought I would love to work with inner-city kids and this population," she says. "I was very much a middle-class white person."

Although she grew up in Providence, her home is now on a farm near the Massachusetts border. She and her family share 28 acres with goats, ducks, chickens, several cats, and a dog. But each morning she commutes to the troubled neighborhood that is home to the Bishop McVinney school.

"The kids are very forgiving, and they have insights," Round says on a recent day while supervising her class at an indoor recess period. "Most of these kids have experienced things I will never in my life, like immigration and racism. I will never know what it's like to walk into a store and have people look at me."

Even after five years, though, she says she marvels at where she's wound up.

"If you had asked me 15 years ago if I'd ever be a teacher in a Catholic school, I would have felt totally inadequate," she says. "I would have said I don't have the background in theology."

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