A student at St. Catherine Laboure School in Wheaton raises her hand during class. This week, the Archdiocese of Washington published new Policies for Catholic Schools.
A student at St. Catherine Laboure School in Wheaton raises her hand during class. This week, the Archdiocese of Washington published new Policies for Catholic Schools.
Following an extensive consultation involving thousands of people over a nearly two-year period, the Archdiocese of Washington this week released comprehensive new policies for Catholic schools. The new policies, which cover Catholic identity, academic excellence, school governance, and affordability and accessibility, will go into effect starting Oct. 1, and they will be implemented in stages through July 2010.

In mid-August, Archbishop Donald Wuerl signed a decree approving and promulgating the new policies, and the entire policy was made available online this week, at www.CatholicSchoolsWork.org . The new policies mark the first comprehensive revision of archdiocesan school policies since 1976.

"The purpose of this policy is to strengthen our Catholic education, our Catholic schools, and we're doing it within the realm of the possible, we're doing it within the context of the means available to us," said Archbishop Wuerl in an interview. "... I would hope our Catholic faithful, especially parents, will see in these policies a declaration of support for them, so they recognize they are not alone in this life's enterprise of raising their children in the Catholic faith. The most practical expression of this, will be the availability in some form of more widespread access of tuition assistance."

The archbishop said that parents participating in the consultation made that need clear. In the past two years, the archdiocese has made a five-fold increase in tuition assistance available to families, to $4 million for the current school year, and the new policies seek to further increase that tuition assistance by increasing financial commitment at the archdiocesan level and by an increase of the educational assessment at the parish level.

"It is absolutely a goal to make Catholic school tuition as affordable to as many families as possible," said Thom Duffy, the archdiocese's chief financial officer. "We recognize the struggles that families face to send their children to Catholic school, and we're attempting to help them as best we can as an archdiocese, (by) equitably distributing the cost across the archdiocese."

Thomas Burnford, the archdiocesan secretary for education, said the new policies "provide direction for the diocese as a whole to assure that we can sustain Catholic schools well into the future."

Patricia Weitzel-O'Neill, the superintendent of Catholic schools for the archdiocese, called the development of the new policies, "a significant moment for our schools." In an interview, she said, "What we're rolling out are revised and expanded policies that we hope will ensure we'll have excellent schools that are truly Catholic, with the highest academic standards, that are well governed and are affordable and accessible."

She and other archdiocesan leaders praised the extensive consultation and planning that resulted in the policies. Following the fall 2007 archdiocesan Convocation on Catholic Education, participants agreed on the need for strategic planning for the future of local Catholic schools.

"When we had the education convocation, it was clear from comments and input from everybody, (that) what we needed was an overall archdiocesan plan that would grow out of a vision of the importance of Catholic education," said the archbishop, who issued a pastoral letter on Catholic education last year.

Task forces were formed, research was done into best practices, surveys were sent to 12,000 people, focus groups met, archdiocesan consultative groups reviewed proposals, and regional consultations were held.

"The collaboration and the number of people who gave of their time and wisdom to be involved in this process is amazing. It's a great feeling now to have a set of policies that we know are the fruit of real consultation," Burnford said. "We took the time through the surveys and consultative meetings to ask people what they thought, and the policies we developed reflect that."

Duffy praised the collaboration, noting that Archbishop Wuerl sought the input of the faithful to develop the new policies. "Everyone worked together to make it a success... It's a demonstration of the archdiocese's commitment to collaborate, so these are informed decisions made after receiving input from as many stakeholders as possible."

Archbishop Wuerl said that the Catholic identity policies reflect another key priority that was emphasized during the consultations. "That's at the heart of who we are," he said, noting that "because of our teachers and because of the curriculum, you can say that Christ should be present in every classroom, and that education weaves this encounter with Christ into the very fabric of the students' experience."

The Catholic identity policies spell out guidelines for religious education, the appropriate celebration of the sacraments, how schools are united with the archbishop, and how an atmosphere of faith should permeate the school. They encourage schools to foster vocations and to live out the Church's teachings on social justice.

"We set out to clearly put on paper and in policy what makes a Catholic school Catholic, and set the policies that would support all Catholic schools, (in fulfilling) that part of the fundamental mission of the Church, to pass on the faith...," said Burnford, who chaired a Catholic identity task force during the consultations.

The policies on school governance outline the different types of Catholic schools, both archdiocesan and independent, and how a school applies to be Catholic.

"We provide clarity on the types of archdiocesan schools, their relationships to parishes, and the roles and responsibilities of pastors and principals," Burnford said, who helped lead the effort to devise the governance policies. "The independent schools of the archdiocese are a great gift to our local Church, and it was important to work collaboratively with these schools, to define roles and responsibilities."

The policies on academic excellence covers academic, instructional, assessment and professional standards, and also addresses admissions, school handbooks and school safety.

"The approach was what kind of policies must be in place to ensure that effective, excellent schools are in place, with the highest standards... schools that would demonstrate an ongoing continuous commitment to the highest standards in all areas of school life: academics, instructional, assessment and professional life," said Weitzel-O'Neill, who chaired the task force on academic excellence.

Archbishop Wuerl said that he hoped that people across the archdiocese would support the effort to expand tuition assistance, so more families can afford to send their children to Catholic school. "The impact (on parishioners) will be to assure them that they are part of the whole educational enterprise, and they can be actively engaged in this Catholic effort to pass on the faith. They can do that in their support of the tuition assistance effort," he said.