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Standards Crucial for U.S. Catholic Schools: BC Catholic Ed Leader Patricia Weitzel-O'Neill

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By Ed Hayward

Chestnut Hill, Mass. (March 2012) – The creation of the first set of national standards and benchmarks for effective Catholic schools marks a crucial step in efforts to bolster the nation’s Catholic schools, said Patricia Weitzel-O’Neill, executive director of the Roche Center for Catholic Education at Boston College, who was part of the three-year effort to draft the standards.

Patricia Weitzel-O'Neill, executive director, Barbara and Patrick Roche Center for Catholic Education The National Standards and Benchmarks for Effective Catholic Elementary and Secondary Schools will be formally released on Monday, March 12, at Loyola University Chicago.

Increased competition, demographic changes and financial constraints sparked a call for national standards and benchmarks for Catholic schools, said Weitzel-O’Neill, the former superintendent of Schools for the Archdiocese of Washington D.C.

To address the issue, the Center for Catholic School Effectiveness at Loyola University Chicago partnered with the Roche Center at the Lynch School of Education, the National Catholic Education Association and a stakeholder task force for three years of study and discussion that resulted in the first-ever blueprint.

“We know that effective Catholic schools start with a crystal clear understanding of their Catholic identity and their Catholic mission and support that with operational vitality,” said Weitzel-O’Neill. “This is the first time we have a national document that provides a clear, comprehensive framework of universal characteristics for Catholic school effectiveness. These standards and benchmarks offer a platform school leaders can use to strengthen all Catholic schools, those that are struggling or simply want to be better.”

The standards and benchmarks address three primary areas: the defining characteristics of Catholic schools; standards, structures and processes essential to operating effective Catholic schools; and the benchmarks necessary to measure performance and increase accountability.

At their peak in the 1960s, there were more than 13,000 U.S. Catholic schools serving more than 5 million students. Today, there are approximately 7,000 Catholic schools educating approximately 2.1 million students, according to the National Catholic Education Association. Throughout New England, more than 100 Catholic schools have closed or merged since 2000.

These changes and other demographic shifts, combined with a decline in funding, resulted in calls for a national articulation of the hallmarks of school Catholicity, sound management practices and academic excellence. The standards and benchmarks are meant to give direction to school leaders.

“This is not meant to create a national Catholic school system,” said Weitzel-O’Neill. “Schools will retain their independence – they will honor their unique mission and identity. These standards emphasize the importance of articulating the mission. It needs to be clearly understood and decisions need to be made based on mission. Successful schools are mission-driven schools, with clear standards and benchmarks.”

Weitzel-O’Neill said the standards will guide the work of archdiocesan officials, superintendents and principals, and also frame the work of researchers and the colleges and universities that prepare teachers and principals to work in Catholic schools.

“The hope is that this will support the efforts of Catholic school leaders to sustain excellent schools long into the future,” said Weitzel-O’Neill. “It will guide the work of all of us who work to ensure Catholic schools survive and thrive.”

To view the standards and benchmarks in their entirety, please visit http://www.catholicschoolstandards.org or http://luc.edu/ccse.

For more information about the Roche Center for Catholic Education at Boston College, please visit http://www.bc.edu/cce

-- Ed Hayward, associate director of the Office of News & Public Affairs, can be reached at ed.hayward@bc.edu.