As Christopher Mominey begins his second year as archdiocesan Secretary for Catholic Education and Chief Operating Officer for the Faith in the Future Foundation, he spoke in a wide-ranging interview on Catholic education and the future of education in general.
Mominey has served in his roles since May 2013. Prior to that he served as principal of Rome Catholic High School in Rome, N.Y. (2004-2008); deputy superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Syracuse (2008-2009) and superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Syracuse (2008-2013.
He and his wife, Stephanie, are members of St. Basil the Great Parish, Kimberton. Their four children attend Holy Family School, Phoenixville.
Q. Why is Catholic education so important to you?
A. For two reasons. It had a significant impact on my life in terms of the relationships that I have had with my teachers, fellow students and alumni. Those are relationships that have lasted a lifetime but I think the biggest thing is that Catholic schools continue to be the most effective way of passing on the faith outside of the family. I think of the effectiveness our ministry in the United States, broadly speaking, has had on evangelization.
Q. I think the most significant challenge we have in the schools is declining enrollment. According to the statistics it is down 30 percent in the past six years alone. Last year it was down about eight percent, although that was not on your watch. How does it look this year?
A. We will take the temperature on October 1. We expect the high school enrollment to remain steady this year to stem the decline. On the elementary school front, we are hearing very good things from the field about retention and enrollment strategies. We like the way we are trending now.
A couple of things on the decline: We have had challenges with schools that we have had to combine or merge. I don’t know if as an organization we have been real good about how we transition those kids. We have not done all that we can. There is a lot of emotion surrounding that and we need to do a better job. There is of course the challenge of tuition; making sure our schools are affordable. The Faith in the Future Foundation has helped us significantly.
The last thing I would say on the enrollment challenge is making sure we have a solid value proposition for our schools. Our parents today are savvier than ever in terms of what they invest in for their kids, in terms of product. We need to make sure we do a much better job in promoting the product we have and improving it in places where we don’t have quality.
Q. According to Al Cavalli at the (elementary-level) Independence Mission Schools, they do expect a healthy increase.
A. Yes, that is what Al said to me as well. That is a testament to their ability to promote quality education in an urban setting. I think they have done a great job in articulating their value proposition. They have done a great job in promoting that and having donors come to the table and investing in it which allows kids to go there. They are doing tremendous work.
Q. Looking at the Philadelphia School Partnership ratings, our schools on the whole seem at the least competitive with the charter schools and public schools academically and possibly better in many cases. Can you comment?
A. Absolutely. First of all the thing that is not articulated is that parents choose our schools for the passing on of the faith and passing on of values. The second thing parents always tell us is safety, that sense of community and academics. So we think we fare very well against charter schools and public schools. Of course the charter schools are selective in admissions with lotteries and other things and they are going to remain competitive with us.
At the end of the day we have to show our tuition charge is worth the investment and the return on investment, I like to say, is the dividends returned for life. The students are not just prepared for the workforce and well prepared as citizens for the 21st century. Our ultimate goal is to prepare students for life in this world and for life in the next world.
In some regards when you compare Catholic and public schools it’s apples and oranges. When we deliver education we want to do that with quality and we want to do it on a competitive level, but we have our eye on a bigger prize.
Q. Faith in the Future focuses on our high schools and schools of special education. Independence Mission Schools focuses on schools in the inner city. It seems to me middle class families are left out because they are not eligible for the kind of assistance that the inner city kids can get. What are we doing to help them?
A. A couple of things. One, our financial aid across the archdiocese is looked at through one portal so everybody is looked at equally. Where you question how we are helping the middle class, I think the answer is through the governance model we have set up. Out of the Blue Ribbon Commission came that strong push to make schools self-sufficient, with strong leadership on the local level that helps with development and fundraising.
We have set up through regional boards what I would call foundations for our elementary schools. Of course in the elementary schools we are calling attention to (Pennsylvania’s) EITC (Educational Improvement Tax Credits) and OSTC (Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credits) dollars and our partners in BLOCS (Business Leadership Organized for Catholic Schools) have been a huge help in make sure the distribution of financial aid across the diocese is fair and consistent. We are trying to make one point of contact through BLOCS.
The other thing our office has done is hire a director of financial aid that can look at the entire dashboard across the entire 150 schools. We can be much more strategic about how we allocate our resources. I think we are getting much better at being good stewards of the resources we spend.
Q. The blackboard and chalk classrooms of the past no longer exist. What innovations do you see for the future?
A. The big thing we have to get our heads wrapped around is the traditional classroom is much more innovative. By that I mean in the past the teacher was deep wisdom. You listened, you wrote it down and that is how you learned. Well, kids today learn differently. We say the teacher has gone from being “the sage on the stage” to being “the guide outside.” They are learning in much more collaborative ways — they learn from each other, they learn from technology, and that’s what the workforce is looking for. They will sit at meetings, they will collaborate on projects and that is the kind of work ethic and those kinds of skills we need to be teaching to our children.
That is one side of it. The other is what I call “the digital natives,” these children who were born into this digital world. We just have to recognize they learn differently. They learn through their technology and they are not linear thinkers. They can learn a multitude of different things from different resources and candidly, at the same time. My own daughter can text on her cell phone while she is listening to her iPod and writing a document.
Q. I’m fascinated by the distance learning I have seen in some of the schools, where kids are going to another school for a course their school doesn’t have, perhaps a foreign language, or they are using Skype or some other form of telecommunication. Is this something you think we will be seeing more of?
A. I do. But it is a kind of a double-edged sword. It helps us in that we are not bound by the four walls of that building and we can partner high schools together or we can partner with higher education. The other side of the double-edged sword is that cooperative learning with the teacher and the other students in the classroom. So I think it will definitely be in the mix but it will not take center stage as the most effective way of teaching.
Again, what we have to do is diversify the teaching. A kid may have two classes of distance learning, one class of traditional lecture and one that is a hybrid — it meets once a week and then goes online, it may be what we call a flip classroom. In a flip classroom the kids are doing their homework in the classroom guided by the teacher through the assignments. The teaching is done through the lecture through technology, maybe a podcast or a YouTube video, which the students are doing on their own time at their convenience, then coming into the classroom to do the work that ties in with the lesson.
Q. Do we see cyber schools at this point?
A. I don’t think so. I do think that one of the strengths of the Catholic schools is the sense of community, that sense of parental involvement and the sense of people working together as people of God in this particular apostolate of the church. I would hate to see them go that route but it may have a place periodically. Last year we had snow days and a couple of our schools went to cyber days. Bonner-Prendie did it and they really did a great job. Again, I think it will be a hybrid. Some schools will go to iPads; some schools will go to “bring your own technology” whether it is an iPad or a laptop. It’s not either-or.
Q. Going back to the 19th century, the fundamental reason the Catholic schools in Philadelphia were founded was for the preservation of the faith. Bishops Kenrick and Neumann were upset about some of the things that were being taught in public schools. We still have a culture that is hostile to Catholic teachings in some ways. How do we ensure our teachers have the same commitment to the faith as the 19th century nuns and priests had?
A. That’s a great question. When we say Catholic identity in the 21st century it means something very different than it did in the 19th century. You could assume Catholic identity because you knew the nuns and the brothers were formed themselves. When we choose the leaders for our schools our first and foremost priority is to make sure these are people who are called upon to be models for the students. Pope Paul VI said we need witnesses more than teachers.
It is our first priority to make sure these are people in leadership roles that model that and it trickles down as we look to hire teachers. There are programs in the elementary schools where the kids are getting their basics and it is important that the teachers are formed in the same tradition.
Are we ever going to do the great job the sisters did in their traditions and their novitiates? We will probably never get to that level but what we are doing is a great thing. What we have to realize is that nationwide only about three percent of our teachers are religious, we recognize that.
We have to embrace the gift of lay people taking over our schools and also give them the tools that assure us they know the faith. All of the teachers have to have a pastor’s letter supporting their candidacy to be a teacher or an administrator.
Q. Can you say something about the level of professionalism and faith you have encountered in Philadelphia?
A. Absolutely. There is no doubt in my mind when we talk about world premier faith formation and Catholic education that we are in the middle of it down here in Philadelphia. I have traveled around the archdiocese and it is not only the level of commitment of the teachers I have met, the coaches, the DREs, the catechists, it is every single person that I have met. You can tell the commitment no matter what the future holds, whether it is enrollment increases or not.
It will ultimately be more souls in heaven. People get that here in Philadelphia. They really get that Catholic education is such an important mission of the church. I have not seen elsewhere what I have seen in the Church in Philadelphia. I think it will be highlighted next year during the World Meeting of Families; how important Catholic education is to the life of the family and how it partners in the important work of the church.
Q. There seems to have been a greater turnover in administration in the schools this year. Is that just a coincidence?
A. I don’t think it is much different than any other year, maybe a little more. Some retired, some were transferred. Some priests went into parish work. When this happens we try to upgrade leadership. We take leadership development very seriously because we feel that has the number-one impact on the life of the school. How that principal, how that pastor on the elementary level; how that president, how that board, how that principal on the secondary level all work together. Those are some of the most important benchmarks for the school.
We worked a lot this year on the culture, getting people to know that we can grow the system, we can move the needle in a positive direction. We are here to grow rather than say, “How are we going to manage the decline?” I think this year we have put some of the pieces in place and will have a great story to tell over the next two or three years.