Teacher Meg O'Brien helps fourth grader Kerri Ngo at St. Joseph School in Beltsville.
Teacher Meg O'Brien helps fourth grader Kerri Ngo at St. Joseph School in Beltsville.
An extensive consultative process aimed at developing new policies for Catholic schools is now transitioning into a process aimed at finalizing and implementing those policies, the Archdiocese of Washington's chancellor said. The goal is to develop policies that will strengthen and sustain Catholic schools into the future.

"We've just completed one of the largest and most extraordinary consultations in the history of the archdiocese," said Jane Belford. "It was really unprecedented to have this many people involved. Essentially, the entire archdiocese was invited to participate."

The process began in October 2007, when the archdiocese convened a Convocation on Catholic Education. Since that day, thousands of parents, educators, priests and parishioners have been invited to participate in planning new policies for Catholic schools: as members of task forces focusing on Catholic identity, academic excellence, governance, affordability and accessibility; participants at numerous local and regional meetings, special gatherings and convocations; and through written surveys, focus groups and via e-mail to a mailbox set up specially to receive comments.

In October 2008, Archbishop Wuerl issued a pastoral letter, "Catholic Education: Looking to the Future with Confidence," in which he said that supporting Catholic education is a responsibility of all Catholics working together to learn and pass on the faith.

The outcome of the consultation process is comprehensive new policies for Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Washington. These will be finalized, published and implemented over the next year, starting in fall 2009 through July 2010.

An overview of the consultative process and the four key policy areas can be found on pages 10-11 of this week's Catholic Standard. That information, and the background material in this article, was compiled by the archdiocese's Office of Communications.

Belford, who coordinated the task forces in those four key areas, said archdiocesan officials are now determining which can be implemented on Sept. 1, which would require additional work and could be implemented by Jan. 1, 2010, and which areas would be appropriate to be implemented by July 1, 2010.

"The reason we have three stages, are some of these policies are more complex than others and may impact other existing policies that may need to be modified or changed to be consistent," she said.

For example, she said new policies on schools developing their own mission statement might not be implemented until January, to give the schools time to work on that task within their own community.

This summer, archdiocesan officials will be editing the proposed policies.

"We're going to develop guidelines and benchmarks for each policy (area)," she said. "...Once the policies have been assigned one of three policy effective dates, then we will develop implementation strategies for those policies."

She noted that after 500 clergy, educators, parents and parishioners participated in the October 2007 Convocation on Catholic education, "a consensus emerged that the mission of Catholic education is to pass on the faith, that it's the responsibility of the whole Church, across the archdiocese."

Belford said "there are many expressions of Catholic education throughout the archdiocese, (including) schools, religious education programs, adult faith formation, RCIA. When we say Catholic education, (we mean) many expressions of it are all important and valued."

While the extensive consultation process has been underway to develop new policies to strengthen and sustain Catholic schools, another effort has been underway in the archdiocese to evaluate and strengthen parish religious education programs, where people of all ages are prepared for the sacraments and learn about the faith.

The consultative work to develop new Catholic school policies comes at an important time, Belford said.

"Catholic schools are facing the most challenging time in their history, (with) rising costs, shrinking enrollments and limited resources," she said.

Belford said that the convocation participants recognized the need for planning, that "we need to address Catholic schools strategically, or we run the risk they'll close one by one. Everyone agreed that they're too important to let that happen. We had to have a strategic plan to address the challenges these schools are facing."

The chancellor praised the people throughout the archdiocese who took part in the past 18 months in task forces, consultative bodies, surveys, focus groups, and regional consultations. The consultative bodies included the archdiocesan Administrative Board, the Priest Council, Pastoral Council, Board of Education, Independent school leaders, the Elementary School Principals' Association and a recent Convocation of Priests.

She noted that people at many of the consultations praised the archdiocese's work to increase tuition assistance. Under the new policies being developed, increasing tuition assistance to families will be a key priority across the archdiocese. Catholics will be encouraged to support legislative efforts like the proposed BOAST business tax credit program in Maryland that could provide a significant source of scholarship aid, and to advocate for proven successful programs like the D.C. Opportunity Scholarships.

"These policies that we are going to begin to implement reflect the input of thousands of stakeholders and represent the best effort to strengthen and sustain Catholic education in our schools, into the future," Belford said. "...We're all working together in this to help ensure their future."