By Maureen Smith
MADISON – Representatives from the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA) met with members of advisory councils from schools across the diocese Saturday, Feb. 22, at Madison St. Joseph School, for a one-day leadership conference on a variety of topics. The result was inspirational, according to many attendees.
The day was meant to give council members new tools to do their jobs and a chance to meet with one another to trade ideas and ad
dress common challenges. Catholic Schools Superintendent Catherine Cook found out NCEA executive committee members hold their meetings at different sites around the country so they can offer their expertise to dioceses nearby.
All she had to do was ask them for a workshop that would coincide with a meeting, so she did. The board met in Jackson in the
days before the leadership conference.
Advisory councils usually meet with diocesan staff in the fall, but waited until February this year to take advantage of the NCEA visit. “The timing was actually very good,” said Vicksburg St. Francis School Principal Michelle Connelly. “By January/February our councils have usually reviewed their handbooks as well as tuition and scales so they don’t have as much work they have to complete so they can lose some energy,” she explained. She said all her representatives left the meeting with new enthusiasm and a new mission for their work.
The day focused on three main topics, integrating tech
nology into schools, the role of standing committees in the mission of the councils and handling the issue of Catholic identity at each school. James McCullough, president of the diocesan advisory council said this list of topics came about thanks to input from educators.
“Technology is always high on the list of what schools want to hear,” he said. “We are coming into an age where students are so tech savvy that if our educational methods don’t keep up our schools are not going to be able to teach in a way our students have adapted to learning,” he added.
The role of the council and different committees on it is a common topic for meetings such as this. It’s a way to teach new members their roles and rededicate those who have served for some time. The Catholic identity issue came out of a principals’ retreat earlier this year. When the educators broke into small groups to discuss what challenges they were facing every single group named it as a key focus they would like to have for the year or improve upon in their school community.
The day was structured so everyone could attend the technology panel, but there were two opportunities to attend one of the seven breakout sessions offered. Breakouts included workshops on long-range planning, public relations and marketing, best practices in finance and effective advisory council committees. Bishop Joseph Kopacz joined the group in the afternoon for a prayer and commissioning service.
Sister Mary Ann Tupy, principal at Greenwood St. Francis School, called the workshop excellent. “We all came away from each session with something we needed to improve or a new idea, and that was good,” she said.
Connelly said she was surprised at how much she got out of each part of the day. “I went to the finance breakout and I was expecting to go listen to how you manage money as a council, how you watch the money, but he did so much more than that. He gave us ideas about how to generate money and how to do it outside the box,” she said.
Cathi Verhine, vice-president of the Vicksburg council called the day fantastic. She left with three pages of notes and a new energy to try new things and improve on the things the school is currently doing. One of the lessons she learned came from a public relations and marketing workshop. “When you have strong school leadership you, as an advisory council member can become passive, but we heard that word of mouth is the best PR tool. We need to continue to be active as advisory council members and as stakeholders,” she explained.
For Verhine, the variety of speakers was an added benefit. “What’s great about these meetings is that we all bounce ideas off each other, we all feed one another. This was great because having people from around the country brought different views to the discussion,” she said.
Speakers included Dr. Regina Haney, executive director of NCEA’s boards and councils department; Ryan Blackburn, director of marketing for schools for the Archdiocese of Chicago and the director of Catholic education for the Diocese of Charleston, S.C., in addition to presidents, principals and development directors from Catholic schools in Alabama, Connecticut, New Jersey, Oregon and Utah.
Cook credited her predecessor, Sister Deborah Hughes, SSJ, with introducing the training program that lead to this conference. “Advisory council members have always received some type of annual in-service program, but it was really Sister Deborah who with the Diocesan Advisory Council developed the conference format. The breakout sessions which focus on best practices offer opportunities for interaction with the presenters and have created a collaborative experience,” explained Cook.
McCullough, an attorney and Boy Scout leader, said the expertise of the speakers made this a quality event. “This helps refocus peoples’ efforts. Hearing from someone who has been wildly successful gave a lot of encouragement to people facing the same kinds of problems. When we left the room people were fired up,” he said.