Brooklyn and Queens Catholic Schools Embrace Innovation

Despite a number of Catholic schools shutting down across the nation, The Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn is taking steps to innovate its schools to keep Catholic schools in Brooklyn and Queens open.

children working on school work
Approximately 30 percent of students at St. Saviour Academy in Park Slope are not Catholic. This new diversity across the diocese is beneficial to all students: “They all get a taste of what it’s really like outside of school,” principal Lorenzen says. “It’s like a slice of Brooklyn.”

According to the National Catholic Education Association, U.S. enrollment in Catholic schools has fallen by nearly 25 percent in 13 years. Since 2000, elementary school enrollment has declined by 38.2 percent in the 12 urban dioceses. In June 2013 the Archdiocese of New York closed 24 of its “at-risk” schools. Still, in spite of these figures, educators at these schools are clearly doing something right: The NCEA reports that 99.4 percent of those enrolled in Catholic high schools go on to graduate, and 84.9 percent of those graduates go on to college. While Catholic schools across the nation are struggling to stay afloat, others right here in the New York metro area are not only thriving, but also adapting in order to provide kids with the tools they need to succeed.

In 2009, The Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn announced its progressive plan, “Preserving the Vision.” The first wave brought about the reorganization of 25 campuses, which were consolidated into three new schools and five new academies. Recent updates to the plan outline the diocese’s 11 priorities including strengthening enrollment and utilizing up-to-date technology to augment classroom instruction. Though the plan hasn’t put an end to school closures, it has helped to keep the newly formed institutions viable.

Maura Lorenzen, principal of St. Saviour Catholic Academy, a nursery through eighth-grade school in Park Slope, says her school and others across the diocese are making great strides. “It’s fairly dramatic,” Lorenzen says. “We’re not complacent. We’re looking to the future and really striving.” Academies and schools are working to give students a holistic Catholic education that integrates the Common Core Learning Standards with church teachings and recognizes the individual needs of students.

St. Saviour, for instance, recently hired a learning specialist to work with students who have individual education plans. This addition to the staff, Lorenzen says, has been a great help to parents and teachers alike. “Even before we had a learning specialist we had students who had IEPs. Development is uneven among students—one might be struggling academically and excelling socially, or the other way around,” Lorenzen says, adding that, even with small class sizes and a low student-to-teacher ratio, it can be challenging to give adequate attention to students with outlying needs. “Having this resource has been a tremendous support.”

Schools across the diocese are offering enriching classes aimed at helping kids develop a literacy of technology and complete worldview. Classrooms at St. Savior Academy and St. Joseph the Worker in Windsor Terrace are equipped with smart boards and smart tables. Beginning in middle school, students at various schools can choose from a wide array of electives including band, drama, and even robotics. At St. Sebastian School in Woodside, all students participate in an art program where they learn principles of art and put techniques to work.

Just as the classroom practices in Catholic schools are seeing significant changes, the old ways of oversight are undergoing a transformation.

When the diocese began consolidating its struggling schools, it also implemented a new governance model to foster an environment of innovation. Where parish pastors and principals administer traditional Catholic schools, newly appointed academies are overseen by a board of directors made up of clergy members and lay people. Where religious orders were once the solitary driving force behind educational decisions, academies now acknowledge that laypersons have valuable perspectives.

In just a few short years, this update has spurred a number of academic benefits, namely more stringent accreditation for teachers and the ability for educators to participate in secular education training seminars such as those provided by the National Association for the Education of Young Children. The diocese intends to transition all of its institutions in Brooklyn and Queens from schools to academies (and thereby to this educationally progressive governance model) by 2017.

“When I attended this school many years ago, everyone who attended was Catholic,” Lorenzen says of St. Saviour’s. Now, she is excited that a more diverse student population across the region is both strengthening the ever-important identity of Catholic students and broadening the worldview of those who are not Catholic—one more way the schools are changing with the times.