Bishop Reviews Schools Viability

The Diocese of Bridgeport is nearing completion of a 16-month planning process for the future of its elementary schools in Stamford and the greater Danbury and Shelton area.

Bishop Frank J. Caggiano and other diocesan leaders have begun to personally meet with parents to listen to feedback on working group recommendations. The local planning and working groups were formed as the final stage in the study of schools, which began in 2014, and they are reviewing findings including diocesan and community data on finances, demographics, facilities, trends and other factors. “The results of this planning process now bring us to an important moment in shaping the future,” said Bishop Caggiano. “More specifically, I expect to make important decisions in the coming weeks regarding those schools that continue to face financial difficulties, in the hope of creating a plan to ensure the long-term viability of Catholic education in every region of the diocese.”

The bishop and Superintendent Dr. Steven Cheeseman will return to the schools in February to announce final plans after consultations with pastors and principals, planning committees, school advisory boards, and listening sessions with parents. While it is anticipated that some schools may consolidate, the bishop said he remains committed to preserving the long-term viability of Catholic education in every region of the diocese, and ensuring that there is a place for every child who wishes to attend a Catholic school in their area.  The diocesan and school planning groups are also exploring new governance structures,  financial and administrative models, and school redesign to make the best use of resources and prepare for future changes. “In order to retool our schools for the 21st century and to create learning enviornments focused on innovation and collaboration, we need a student population small enough to form a cohesive and supportive faith community, but large enough to support innovating programing and facilities,” said Dr. Cheeseman. Ensuring the viability and vitality of schools is one of a number of major initiatives launched by Bishop Caggiano, who has made Catholic schools one of his priorities as they continue to face challenges of deficits, shrinking enrollment and the need to plan for the future.

In 2014, the diocese created the Bishop’s Scholarship Fund, which has made more than $2.2 million a year available for students in elementary schools. The fund was a major breakthrough for families because in addition to serving the poor, it made it possible for middle and upper income families to receive support, particularly when they had more than one child enrolled in Catholic schools. In 2016, Bishop Caggiano announced the formation of Foundations in Education, an independent philanthropic foundation to support Catholic schools by creating endowments for scholarship aid, professional development and ongoing innovations in curriculum, technology and school design. The viability studies and planning reviews began with the formation of the Diocese Education Commission in 2014. In June 2015, Sister Mary Grace Walsh, the former Superintendent of Schools, launched a diocesan-wide educational planning process by asking all diocesan elementary schools to complete a viability study for the commission. The purpose of the study was to identify the areas of challenge that each school faced and to make recommendations that would strengthen their long-term financial viability and educational vitality. Following that initial study, members of the commission visited each of the 30 diocesan schools for a first-hand understanding of their respective strengths and challenges.  Afterwards, they met with representatives of the leadership team for each school.

According to Dr. Cheeseman, some schools were asked to identify specific benchmarks to help strengthen their long-term financial viability as a result of earlier research and meetings. “After a great deal of work by local school leaders, some of these schools began the current academic year having made significant progress towards achieving greater financial stability and improvement in their educational programs,” Dr. Cheeseman said.  “A few schools continue to face significant financial challenges.” He said the strategic planning entered a new phase this past September when every school was asked to complete a comprehensive financial stress test designed to identify any remaining serious challenges to its long-term financial health.

In December, Bishop Caggiano authorized the creation of two local school planning committees based on the results of the stress tests, one in Danbury/Brookfield and the other in Shelton/Monroe, to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of their respective schools, the challenges posed by changing demographics, and most importantly, how to ensure the financial stability for schools in their geographical areas. The committees are composed of three lay leaders chosen by the principal for their professional expertise, including education, financial planning, facilities and marketing. They have met to study the data for each school and have begun working directly with the bishop and superintendent to identify recommendations regarding how best to structure Catholic education going forward. Local pastors and school principals have also been part of the process. A third school planning group was created earlier last year to study the Catholic schools in Stamford. That planning group has made its recommendation to the bishop who is currently reviewing the options presented. “I am committed to complete this process with the help of each respective planning committee,” Bishop Caggiano said. “Our collective goal is to allow us to say with confidence that, once planning is completed and recommendations adopted, any child who enrolls in a kindergarten class in any Catholic school will be able to graduate the 8th grade from the same Catholic school.”

The Office of the Superintendent has established a hotline for parents and members of the school community to ask questions or offer observations.

By Brian D. Wallace