Parish and regional elementary schools of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia have just received a new ally in their quest to sustain viability in these challenging times.

A new governance model has been established with an Executive Board of Elementary Education chaired by Bishop Michael J. Fitzgerald, with five County Advisory Councils, representing the five counties of the Archdiocese working on the local level.

It’s a result of the January 2012 Blue Ribbon Commission on Catholic Education, which wrote, “… the Commission strongly recommends a revised governance model to bring more uniform management, oversight and focus to strategic issues  such as enrollment, tuition and economic viability. The governance process we recommend will assist and at times relieve pastors of some of the day-to-day responsibilities for elementary schools without depriving the schools of high quality, professional leadership.”

The adopted plan goes a step further by establishing the county councils, because simply put, Philadelphia isn’t the same as Bucks County, nor is Delaware County the same as Chester County.

Serving as vice chairs for the executive board are Msgr. Joseph Marino and Jerry Parsons, who spearheaded a similar council in Chester County when Msgr. Marino was regional vicar for Chester County.

Both are products of parochial elementary schools and archdiocesan high schools.

Msgr. Marino attended St. Matthew, Philadelphia; St. Dorothy, Drexel Hill and St. Pius X, Broomall, and then continued on to Msgr. Bonner High School and Cardinal O’Hara High School. As a young priest he taught at Lansdale Catholic High School and was principal at Little Flower High School.

Parsons is the chairman and CEO of CDTI (Communications Test Design Inc.); he has long association with Catholic education both on the elementary and high school level.

“I was one of eight children who went to St. Philip and James School in Exton,” he said, “and I also went to Bishop Shanahan High School.”

The Chester County Board, which is about four years old, “Has been very successful,” Msgr. Marino said, “It has been getting the pastors and principals to a place where they are looking at the whole county.”

Chester County is the area of the archdiocese that is experiencing the most growth, but it is not uniform, Msgr. Marino explained. Most of the growth is in Downingtown South and Downingtown North, the areas of the county with the smaller schools; other areas of the county have lesser growth.

Using census data and other tools the parishes are able to get a realistic projection of the future, whether it is growth or decline.

But just as important is the exchange of ideas among the parishes, for example introducing Rosetta Stone programs for languages that students can access either at home or in the classrooms.

A county-wide program that is working very well is a foundation which to date has raised half a million dollars and is continuing to grow. Also, Msgr. Marino noted, his county has a growing Hispanic population and the parishes are cooperating on programs to serve the needs of these recent arrivals.

The executive board, which also has a member drawn from each of the county boards, is responsible for advising and recommending strategic directions and policies to Archbishop Chaput, and also providing strategic direction to the Superintendent of Elementary Education, the Office for Catholic Education and the Secretary for Catholic Education.

As in the past, the Office for Catholic Education will provide direction for Catholic identity, academic curriculum, setting standards for academic personnel and to support the elementary schools in any way possible.

The county advisory councils are designed to include members representing the different stakeholders in their region – three pastors, three principals, three school parents and three business leaders with a background in finance and marketing; also, a representative of a Catholic university in the area and a Catholic high school representative.

The county advisory councils are 95 percent in place at this time and should all be up and running shortly, Parsons estimates.

“The experience of the Chester County Board was very encouraging,” he said. “We have better communication between the local elementary schools and between the pastors, and we have done a good job raising additional funding, especially through EITC (Educational Improvement Tax Credits).”

They have also established an annual a county-wide gala to raise additional funds and have given distinguished graduate awards, established a Catholic Education Hall of Fame and recognized teachers and others who have contributed to Catholic education.

Now in its third year, the gala will be held Oct. 17 at Bishop Shanahan High School and if past years are an indication, it will be a sellout.

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Lou Baldwin is a freelance writer and a member of St. Leo Parish, Philadelphia.