The school year is a time of new beginnings Print
Our Catholic Schools
Thursday, Sep. 10, 2015 -- 12:00 AM

We are a people of new beginnings! In our faith, this is manifest most directly in the sacraments.

In Baptism, we are reborn in Christ, washed clean of the stain of original sin, beginning anew in him. When we confess our sins in Reconciliation, we are forgiven, washed clean of sin, and begin anew in Christ. When we present ourselves humbly before the Lord and receive his body in Holy Eucharist, He enters our very being and creates us anew in him (2 Cor 5:17, Rev. 21:5). We are a people of new beginnings!

While nothing compares to the new beginnings that we have in Christ, those of us who work in Catholic schools are blessed to experience the excitement, enthusiasm, and wonder of new beginnings as we again welcome students and parents into our schools to embark on another year of learning and growing in faith and knowledge.

New beginnings in our schools

This year our Catholic schools have many reasons for thanksgiving and many reasons for excitement and anticipation.

As was recently reported, enrollment in some areas is growing, prompting several K-5 and K-6 schools to expand through eighth grade.

Cooperation and collaboration between schools and parishes is increasing and strengthening Catholic schools.

As evidence of this, St. Henry and St. Bernard have joined cooperatively in a bold new beginning as Watertown Catholic School; development directors in Catholic parishes and schools in Dane County have networked to share information and strategize on ways to increase enrollment; and teams from 14 schools will attend a series of five development seminars this year that focus on marketing, enrollment, and funding.

As some areas of the diocese are experiencing growth, others are experiencing overall population decline, and are preparing to begin a future as much smaller schools than they once were.

As we confront this reality, the Office of Catholic Schools is discussing with pastors and principals new ways to deliver content, such as online courses, as well as new ways that several schools in the same geographic area might work together to harness each other's strengths.

As we look toward new beginnings, one pastor has drawn inspiration from our not too distant past when one room school houses were the norm in nearly all of our rural areas. Given the tools of technology, the "one room school house" may present an opportunity for a new beginning for our small, rural, Catholic schools (more on this to come).

New technology

We are also looking forward to new beginnings and continued excellence in academics.

This year will see the completion of new diocesan standards for technology, art, and health. These will join the academic standards in math, language arts, science, social studies, physical education, and music that were completed in recent years.

These standards, along with continued professional development, help guide teaching and learning to ensure that students receive the highest quality academics integrated with our Catholic faith.

While the basic methods of teaching and tasks of school operation have remained the same for generations, the tools used to complete those tasks have changed dramatically, even in the past few years, challenging us to embrace new beginnings in how we approach and complete our work in schools.

As an example, many schools have already been using the TeacherEase, electronic student information system. Those schools not yet on the system will complete implementation within the next two years.

This system allows all student records and grades to be kept electronically, allowing parents to access assignments, grades, announcements, and other important school information online.

Additionally, TeacherEase utilizes the Diocesan Academic Standards and Benchmarks for lesson planning and grading, enabling rich professional conversations about teaching and learning to occur among both faculty in the same school and those in several different schools.

This, combined with ongoing training, webinars, and professional development, marks a new beginning for teachers as they are now able to connect with teachers in other Catholic schools, who teach the same grade levels, subjects, and standards.

As teachers discuss how they are meeting standards and benchmarks, they learn from each other and apply this knowledge to their teaching, which in turn increases student learning and achievement.

Continuing the implementation of new, technological tools, another new beginning for which we are preparing is the use of computer adaptive assessment. While more about this will be written in coming months, computer adaptive assessment allows teachers to assess students using a computer or other electronic device (such as an iPad) and obtain nearly instant results.

Teachers are then able to pinpoint areas of students' strengths and weaknesses, allowing them to adapt their lesson plans accordingly to better address the learning needs of their students.

Taking a look within

Beginning anew always starts with self-reflection and an examination of one's convictions and actions.

Over the past years we have been undertaking this process on a broad level with the Principals Association Board, a leadership team of ten principals from schools throughout the diocese.

This has in part, led to some of the initiatives listed above and has also resulted in an ongoing, systematic review of the Policy Handbook.

Last year we began the process of reviewing current policies and recommending revisions to the bishop. This process will continue through next year, until all policies have been reviewed.

Finally, as we constantly begin anew our efforts each day to live fully our mission to introduce students to Christ, form them in faith, and provide an unparalleled education addressing all facets of the person, we are beginning a new system of school accreditation that focuses squarely on our unique task.

The Wisconsin Catholic Schools Accreditation (WCSA) process is a collaborative effort of the five Catholic dioceses in Wisconsin and the Wisconsin Catholic Conference.

It is based on the National Standards and Benchmarks for Excellent Catholic Elementary and Secondary Schools published by the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA).

Implementation of this new process is beginning with six schools this year and will eventually spread to all Catholic elementary schools in the diocese in the near future.

Throughout the coming months, I will write in more detail about many of these and other initiatives, and we will profile the amazing work being done in our schools by our dedicated teachers and principals. Today, we look forward to the start of a new school year, and to beginning anew each day in Christ, as we continually strive to be the people God created us to be, and work to build His kingdom on Earth.

As always, thank you for reading and may God continue to bless you and your families.

Michael Lancaster is superintendent of Catholic schools for the Diocese of Madison.