Catholic schools learn to stand on own two feet
STAMFORD — Over the past several months, Trinity Catholic has made visible changes to its building. A new media center primed for digital learning. New wing for high schoolers on the renovated second and third floors. The guidance office transformed to make space for a learning academy.
But changes to Catholic education in the city go deeper than renovations to the Newfield Avenue campus. Earlier this month, Bishop Frank Caggiano announced the running of the school would now be in the hands of a Board of Directors, a group of nine community members with expertise in a variety of areas that could benefit the school.
“The bishop is a firm believer that in order for a school to be successful, there have to be leaders who take ownership of it,” said Steven Cheeseman, superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Bridgeport. “It moves them from advisory (positions) to decision makers.”
Trinity Catholic is the second high school in the diocese to make this change, the first being St. Joseph High School in Trumbull, which switched to the model in March 2017. It joins the Catholic Academy of Bridgeport, Holy Trinity Catholic Academy in Shelton and St. Joseph Catholic Academy in Brookfield, all K-8 schools.
It also is the second school in the city to change, following in the footsteps of the Catholic Academy of Stamford which formed in 2017, merging the city’s four Catholic elementary schools and one middle school. The new academy is also under a board of directors.
“These academy, single-campus models are very successful around the country,” said Michael Macari, Trinity’s director of marketing and communications. “We saw a positive turnaround with St. Joseph’s getting on a good footing. It’s a model that works during a time of change.”
The eventual goal is for the schools to be self sufficient, she said.
“(The diocese) wants to be a proponent of true Catholic education, but I don’t think they want to be in the business of running a school,” Macari
Cheeseman said the new model is the result of years of evolution in the handling of Catholic schools. Once in the hands of a single parish, parochial schools gave way to regional schools in which a single institution was supported by several parishes. This model was replaced by diocesan schools, which are all run by the superintendent of a diocese, with the superintendent’s fiscal management and human resources offices overseeing school business.
“Over the years, they’ve discovered it’s very hard to run 30 schools from one central office,” Cheeseman said. “We need to go back and find a way to empower people at the most local level. Dioceses across the country are grappling with this.”
The transition means Trinity will still have a relationship with the bishop and is still a diocesan school, but is now independently sponsored.
The nine-person board of directors will make decisions on financial matters and tuition rates, as well as facility, admission, general curriculum, marketing and strategic issues. Each board member will oversee a committee assigned to a specific area of business comprised of six to 10 teachers, parents, representatives and professionals with relevant experience.
“At the end of the day, it strengthens the relationship,” Cheeseman said. “In the past, people felt they didn’t have a voice. This is designed to make them our partners as opposed to them running the school. The goal is not ‘us or them.’ The goal is together we can run a stronger school. The hope is it strengthens the relationship with the community.”
Trinity’s new board chair, Roger Fox, said day-to-day decisions for the school will still be decided by Trinity Principal Scott Smith and Head of School Patricia Brady. Meanwhile, the diocese will continue to make decisions about the “Catholic component” of the school, as well as oversee its strategic plan and legal responsibilities.
The board members are from towns across Fairfield County, many with backgrounds in finance. They are assigned committees based on their relevant experience. Sacred Heart University education professor Darcy Ronan is the academic chair while Bruce Moore Jr., president of Eastern Land Management, is heading facilities.
Fox said the board will be looking ahead in one-, three- and five-year increments with a goal of increasing enrollment and coming up with long- and mid-term strategic plans. Fox said he personally would like to strengthen the school’s Catholic influence and update its curriculum to incorporate even more modern technology.
He said he’d like to increase school enrollment from 310 back up to 400 students.
“The bishop felt the more local control, the more local involvement,” Fox said. “I think that’s an extremely valid point. ... If the local community is involved, it brings more people into the schools.”
The diocese as part of the restructure will eventually withdraw financial support from the school, Fox said. Historically, the diocese has given Trinity about $100,000 of its $5 million annual budget, he said. The diocese also gave the school $8 million for its recent renovations.
Cheeseman added the school will be responsible for any budget deficits, however the diocese will help for the time being, including with a deficit the school has as a result of declining enrollment.
“We’re not going to let them fail,” he said. “We’re going to try to work with them.”
“We’re branching out to appeal to more people, get some stability in administration, which Pat Brady and Scott Smith are certainly bringing, and get the curriculum into modern day,” Fox said. “All these things combined should bring us up to enrollment and be more comfortable. ... I just hope I don’t screw it up. These are extremely gifted, talented people who have agreed to donate significant time as committee chairpeople.”
Meanwhile, parents are feeling hopeful about the new model. Trinity families have seen constant waves of change with a new principal every year since 2013. Many hope the new arrangement (along with Smith who in the midst of his first year at the school) will help the institution run a smoother course.
“The school’s had a few very rough years,” said Pauline Curley, who has one daughter who graduated Trinity last year and another who’s a junior. “It’s had a lot of changes. I think this new governance model is a way to formalize things and put it on a more steady footing for the future. What seems positive is there’s going to be a lot more people involved. They seem to be spreading the load and have a wider range of expertise in terms of people.”
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