Catholic schools too expensive? New director says that’s a misconception

July 24, 2018

Haidee Todora, Rochester Catholic Schools’ new director of schools, said she wants to expand and diversify the predominately white Catholic schools’ recruitment efforts to include more minority students and students from poor families.

In her first interview since becoming Rochester Catholic Schools’ “superintendent” in June, Todora said she hopes to eliminate the misconception some families have that a Catholic school education is too expensive. RCS, she added, needs to do a better job of getting families into the system and “making it affordable for families.”

“If we can’t serve the poor in our community, we are not doing what God is asking us to do in Catholic education,” Todora said. “The misconception is, ‘I can’t afford Catholic schools.’ I’m here to change that.”

Todora fills a top leadership post left vacant for a year after the departure of Micheal Brennan, who become president of Holy Family Catholic High School in Victoria, last year.

Todora said hiring a new principal at Lourdes High School would be among her top priorities, but she wasn’t certain one would be named by the first day of school on Aug. 27.

“If we have the perfect candidate, then we will hire that person,” she said. “If we don’t, then we will — myself and (Dean of Academics) Sarah Groven — work in that capacity.”

As RCS director of schools, Todora runs a school system comprised of Lourdes High School, St. Francis of Assisi School, Holy Spirit Catholic School, and St. John the Evangelist/St. Pius X School. Officials say the Catholic school system serves 1,700 students and employs 250 teachers and other staff.

Todora, 57, comes to RCS from a far more socio-economically diverse diocese in Southeast Texas. Todora served as principal of St. Catherine of Siena Catholic School in Port Arthur, Texas, an impoverished area whose students were mostly Hispanic, Vietnamese and African-American.

Todora did not go into detail about her plans for expanding enrollment of minority and poorer students at RCS. Tuition ranges anywhere from $3,000 to 7,000 to attend an RCS program, from early childhood to high school, she said.

Todora also stressed she would spend more time learning about the system and culture before introducing new programs or initiatives.

“I want to master what we do now,” she said. “Then we can grow in some different direction programs.”

But Todora spoke passionately about the role of Catholic education in serving the poor, adding that one reason she believes she was hired as RCS director of schools was to “bring back that into the community.”

Todora has an extensive background in minority recruitment. For the past six years, she has attended the Latino Enrollment Institute at the University of Notre Dame. The institute’s focus is on engaging and enrolling Latino populations in Catholic schools. Todora went first as a student, then later as a mentor of other principals.

Though she didn’t know the couple at the time, the institute at Notre Dame is located in a building named after Jack and Mary Ann Remick, major benefactors of the Rochester Catholic Schools system.

At St. Catherine in Port Arthur, Todora was in emergency mode last year when Hurricane Harvey’s catastrophic flooding left her school in one foot of water. Eleven days later, she had the school up and running again, even though she had been told that her timeline for re-opening the school was too aggressive.

“I knew I had to get the kids back in that building, because they had nowhere else to go,” Todora said. “We’re talking about kids who had to be helicoptered out of their houses and boated out of their streets. And they’re still living in tents.”

Although born and bred in Texas, Todora has roots in Minnesota. Her mom was raised in Topelus, Minn. A career athlete, Todora played major league fast-pitch softball in the 1980s. She has also been a teacher and a coach.

Two years ago, her mom, who lived with Todora, passed away at 95. It was at that point that Todora began to look for leadership opportunities around the country. She was flown to Rochester twice for interviews.

Todora said she believes RCS was interested in her because she represented a “fresh set of eyes” and that her views of the challenges and opportunities at RCS harmonized with those of RCS trustees.

“I’m very policy driven, really like canon law,” Todora said. “I like the policy portion of it. As a principal, you’re putting fires out all day in the building.”

Asked about the system’s enrollment, whether it was up or down, Todora talked generally about how enrollment is a pressing concern for all Catholic schools. All Catholic schools, from the day they open, struggle financially and with enrollment, she said. But she suggested an upbeat picture for RCS.

“I know that we’ve got one school that’s at capacity, and we’re trying to figure out how to grow the early childhood program,” she said, adding, “we’re not down in numbers overall.”