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Lynch School of Education

Center stage at the Roche Center

An Interview with Patricia Weitzel-O'Neill

Patricia Weitzel O'Neill

Patricia Weitzel-O’Neill joined the Roche Center for Catholic Education as its first executive director last summer, after serving as superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Washington for eight years. A former vice president for academic affairs at Trinity Washington University in Washington, D.C., Weitzel-O’Neill is a graduate of Wheeling Jesuit University. She received her Ph.D. in sociology from St. Louis University. She spoke recently with eColloquia about school closings, declining enrollments, and the leadership gap in K through 12 schools, and how the Roche Center plans to help address those challenges.

Q. During the 1990s, there was a resurgence—even talk of a renaissance—in inner-city Catholic schools, led by local Catholic philanthropists, who invested pretty significantly in schools that ended up failing. What happened with that?

A: Money's not the only solution.

Q: OK. What is?

A: Mission. There is a great deal of mission confusion about our schools. The pope and Church hierarchy have articulated a mission. But the interpretation of what that means at the local level, for each parish, for each pastor, for each private school, is where it becomes a challenge.

Recent research indicates our newer priests aren't certain we need parish-centered Catholic schools any longer, because they're very expensive to maintain, and parishes have so many other needs. Technically, legally, most schools are diocesan properties. But for all practical purposes, the financing of the school, the debt that the school incurs, the management of this several-million-dollar operation, falls on the back of a pastor whose seminary training has not prepared him to manage a full-scale business, let alone an instructional, educational enterprise that requires much more care and feeding today than it did in the past, because of the complexity of today's society.

Q. So how do individual schools—or school systems—clarify their missions?

A. It begins with asking the right questions, first and foremost, about identity. What does it mean when you say, “We're Catholic”? It means different things at Boston College, at Salesian High School, at St. Mary’s of the Sea. Who do you serve as part of your mission? Who decides who goes to your school—those who can afford it, those who can pay, or all who seek a Catholic education? Then you look at who governs the school. Should it be a parish school? Should it be a regional school that's owned and operated by Catholic people?

Why are pastors continuing to manage schools? Does this have to be the model for the future? Research suggests these schools might all be better off if they were governed by lay boards, just like our Catholic colleges and universities, with experts in finance, marketing, and communications.

Q. How can Catholic colleges and universities help?

A. Father Leahy and Father Joseph McShane, the president of Fordham, both talked about this at the Catholic Higher Education Collaborative Conference this fall. The fact that these universities are addressing this, are stepping up to the plate, is highly significant.

Universities have got schools of management and business, schools of nursing, schools of social work; you have the arts and sciences, where you have psychology, sociology. And all of these programs have graduate students. Think of what we can do if we harness some of this talent to do the kind of research and get the kind of data that people in the Catholic schools need to make the decisions necessary to move forward—the kind of data funders and donors want.

Q: Are the colleges and universities role models?

A. Absolutely! Catholic higher education was struggling in the '70s. I was at Trinity College in Washington, which almost closed in 1989, and I saw the president there turn around a women’s liberal arts college, and turn it into a fabulous place for liberal arts, graduate education, and professional studies. It's a great success story—as is Boston College. I’ve only been here for three months, and I’ve now heard the story of how Boston College almost closed in 1971 many times.

But it's a story worth telling. Because it says that if you put in the right people, and you're willing to let go of what was, and engage in change, then you can move an institution forward.

Q. You’re building the Roche Center from the ground up. What are you going to do during this first year?

A: I'd say the priority for my first year is to secure a very clear mission statement for the center, and outline a three-to-five-year plan with clear goals and objectives not only for professional development in the local region, but for the field. What’s key to the success of this initiative is the visioning and creation of products that can be used by superintendents, presidents, principals, pastors, school boards, and teachers to continuously improve and strive for excellence in key areas: Catholic identity, professional management, alternative governance and finance models, public policy at all levels, and the development of community models for the education of all children.

Q. What’s your biggest long-term challenge?

A. The Catholic community, writ large, needs to wrap its arms around Catholic schools K through 12 if we want quality Catholic education in the future. If we don't want them, let’s say so. But we can't go halfway toward this. We can't be lukewarm any longer.

Right now, Catholics are very fond of the Catholic school down the street—but they are hesitant to send their kids there. When we talk about the value added in Catholic schools, they say, "I can teach them to pray at home. I want a quality Catholic education. Quality comes first. I want my child to be ready for the 21st century. He's probably not going to do as well on his SATs if I send him to a Catholic school, especially if I want him to get into Boston College." In general, Catholic colleges are not going to give kids from Catholic schools preferential treatment.