Off to a strong start

Accreditation, enrollment, leadership reasons for optimism as DOK school year gets underway

By Bill Brewer

The 2022-23 school year is underway, and if you’re a student, parent, staff member, teacher, or administrator, you can look at it as a class-half-empty or class-half-full proposition.

Summer is basically over, although you would never know by the outside temperatures. Vacations and summer adventures are a memory. The aromas of cookouts and barbecues have wafted away. Swimming pools will soon be empty.

Now it’s back to drop-off and pick-up lines, school-zone congestion, remembering those school-zone speed limits, and the back-to-school shopping lists. The first day for teachers was Aug. 1, and the first day for students was Aug. 5.

Dr. Sedonna Prater, superintendent of Diocese of Knoxville schools, believes in the class-half-full—or even mostly full—philosophy.

So, why would the class be half or mostly full?

Accreditation

All 10 diocesan schools are starting the academic year with a new five-year accreditation by a leading international accreditation agency, student enrollment is expected to be up again, strong administrations and faculties are in place, academic achievement scores also are strong, and COVID may finally be under control.

“The re-accreditation is affirmation that we not only have met the requirements and the standards and the benchmarks that you have to do to be accredited, but it also affirms that what we’ve done in the last five accredited years—our priorities of focus and target goals, both what the accreditation committee informed us they would like for us to do and what we generated on our own—affirms that we did that, and we did that well,” Dr. Prater said.

“It’s a huge compliment to our schools, our school leaders, our staff, and faculty members who have put in place all the actions and target goals to fulfill accreditation,” she added.

Dr. Prater emphasized that the accreditation agency, Cognia, assesses schools based on governance and leadership, budgets and operational sustainability, academics, safety, school environment, and culture.

“There are a number of things. But we also have to adhere to the national standards and benchmarks for effective Catholic schools. Within those, there are four different domains with a number of benchmarks. The four domains are academic excellence, governance and leadership, mission and Catholic identity, and operational vitality,” she said.

“We’re looking at dual standards. Because we’re looking at an extensive amount of standards and benchmarks that we have to meet, the state of Tennessee recognizes that higher level of accrediting status, so we automatically are accredited by the state of Tennessee,” she added.

Dr. Prater is working to get that message out to parents of diocesan school students and potential parents.

“This is important. This is critical. For example, at our high schools, students wouldn’t be able to get into college if they weren’t from accredited schools. But it’s the fact that we’re accredited as an entire system, all of our schools, all the way down to pre-school and up through grade 12. Our system has a mark of distinction, and it’s a mark of distinction that is recognized worldwide,” she continued.

Enrollment

Among the accreditation goals diocesan schools have been working toward is increasing enrollment. That process appears to be working, too.

The goal has been to raise enrollment by 5 percent over five years, so basically 1 percent per year.

“We did that, and that was one of the things the accreditation committee commended us on. We did what we said we were going to do,” Dr. Prater said. “We want to continue to do that. Our focus is all students, but certainly our Catholic students and our parishes. Those are our first customers, our first line of who we want to serve. In these next five years, we want to make more strides in reaching out to our Catholic families, in particular our Hispanic families, who may be in our parishes but don’t think Catholic schools are for them. Our Catholic schools are for them.”

Based on pre-enrollment numbers, all 10 diocesan schools are expected to see higher enrollment for the 2022-23 academic year, according to Dr. Prater.

Dr. Sedonna Prater, superintendent of Diocese of Knoxville schools

Tuition assistance

Aligned with promoting Catholic education to all communities within the Diocese of Knoxville is tuition assistance, and Dr. Prater believes it’s as critical to promote tuition assistance so that the children of all families can have the opportunity to attend a diocesan school.

She said the school system wants to do a better job of communicating the tuition assistance fund that is available for families who may need it. She pointed out that families are made aware of tuition assistance once they come into a school to consider enrolling.

“But if concern for financing education is there, they may never come in through our doors. We have to do a better job of informing them and letting them know it’s out there,” she said.

A second collection at diocesan Masses the weekends of Aug. 13-14 and Nov. 12-13 is for the tuition assistance fund. The annual diocesan schools raffle also is dedicated to tuition assistance, with raffle tickets being sold beginning this month and continuing through December. For every $10 raffle ticket sold, schools keep at least $6.50 for tuition assistance.

Leadership

As the school year begins, some schools will see new leadership. Andrew Cooper, formerly the development director at St. Mary School in Johnson City, has been named principal of St. Dominic School in Kingsport. He succeeds Darlene Lyons, who requested a return to classroom teaching and will serve at St. Mary.

Mary Sue Kosky has been named the principal of Sacred Heart Cathedral School in Knoxville. Ms. Kosky has been with the school since March, assisting interim principal Joan Turbyville. Ms. Kosky formerly was an assistant principal at St. John Neumann School in Farragut.

In Chattanooga, former longtime St. Jude School principal Jamie Goodhard has been named interim head of school at Notre Dame High School. She joins Deacon Hicks Armor, who is co-interim head of school at Notre Dame. Deacon Armor also is director of stewardship and strategic planning for the diocese.

Ms. Goodhard served as principal of St. Jude for 20 years. During the 2021-22 school year, she was coordinator for accreditation and special projects for diocesan schools. Dr. Prater said Ms. Goodhard brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to Notre Dame.

Laura Goodhard, who formerly was admissions director at Notre Dame High School, will be an academic dean at Our Lady of Perpetual Help School in Chattanooga.

Grants for resources

Four diocesan schools—Notre Dame, Our Lady of Perpetual Help, St. Mary in Oak Ridge, and St. Joseph—will continue to receive grants from a U.S. Department of Education program for non-public schools.

A second round of grants is through the Emergency Assistance to Non-Public Schools that’s part of the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act of 2021. This act provided $2.75 billion for the EANS program for private and independent schools.

Dr. Prater explained that in the first round of EANS funding in 2021, all 10 diocesan schools received grants during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic. In this second round of funding, the four diocesan schools are receiving $1.3 million.

During the first phase of EANS, schools were required to purchase resources and then be reimbursed. In this second phase, Notre Dame, Our Lady of Perpetual Help, St. Mary, and St. Joseph are being supplied with the resources based on need.

They were selected for the second phase because their enrollment met the Education Department’s poverty-level threshold, according to Dr. Prater.

“This is huge. In EANS I and EANS II, these were things that were not in our budget, that we did not have the means to do in any way, shape, or form. It’s been very helpful,” she said.

Academic performance

Molly Krueger, a teacher at St. Joseph School in Knoxville and a eucharistic minister, gives Communion to a young student during a school Mass.

Dr. Prater highlighted academic performance among diocesan schools. She said the state of Tennessee reported that 36.4 percent of public-school students in grades kindergarten through eighth in the state are meeting grade-level expectations in English language arts compared to 76 percent of students in Catholic schools.

In math, 73 percent of students in Tennessee Catholic schools are meeting or exceeding proficiency versus 30 percent for state public school students. In science, Tennessee Catholic school students are performing better than 69 percent of all other students. Social studies results were similar.

In religion studies, Tennessee Catholic school students achieved 68 percent mastery compared to 47 percent of U.S. Catholic school students.

“Our achievement data indicate that our students are performing extremely high,” Dr. Prater said, adding that 100 percent of diocesan students take the achievement tests, but there are students with different learning needs, with 35 percent of diocesan students on a learning plan.

She said 76 percent of diocesan school students are meeting or exceeding grade-level academic expectations while 24 percent are not.

She noted that graduation rates at Notre Dame and Knoxville Catholic high schools are right at 100 percent.

“I feel like we’re in good shape, and we’re excited about the new school year.”

‘Learning to hope’

Diocesan school leaders gathered for a leadership retreat at Christ Prince of Peace Retreat Center in Benton from July 20-22 to plan for the new school year. Also, as part of new school year preparation was new employee orientation on July 28, while FBI officials met with school leaders about crisis management, and the schools manual dealing with students with learning needs was updated to address social/emotional learning in the wake of COVID.

Dr. Prater said the theme for the retreat, which will carry over to the academic year, is “Learning to hope with St. Catherine of Siena.”

“I’m reaching out to St. Catherine of Siena as the patroness of our schools this year. She is a doctor of the Church, and she set things on track when there was a lot of turmoil in the Church,” Dr. Prater said. “A quote I would like us to follow is, ‘Be who God intends you to be and you will set the world on fire.’ The idea is let’s be who God intends us to be in our schools because we’re doing His work. If we do that, we can’t help but be successful.”

Impact of COVID

She said diocesan schools, in some ways, have moved past the COVID school years of 2019-20, 2020-21, and 2021-22, but in other ways the schools are still being affected by the coronavirus.

“We’re treating it as an endemic—something we’re going to have to live with. It’s not a pandemic anymore. It’s endemic. It’s something that’s going to be here. As far as our policies are concerned, we’re addressing it as we do with all our illnesses. It falls under wellness. But having lived through it, and if I can be honest, we’re not the same nor will we ever be. There has been a lot that has changed and transpired. It has impacted us for three years,” she said.

At the height of the pandemic, diocesan schools approached the outbreak “like the house was on fire,” she pointed out.

“We were trying to save the most important elements and get out while holding on to those most important of things, which for us was keeping our children in school as healthy as possible and educating them as best we can,” she said. “This year, we’re able to look back and say, ‘OK, now that the fire is under control, we can assess what do we need to do to repair what’s been undone.’”

“We have fared better than most as our test scores indicate,” she noted.

Dr. Prater recalled the first year of the pandemic, when learning shifted from the classroom to remote, at-home learning, remarking that some diocesan schools were ready to handle that shift, but many were not.

“But they did it, and they did it well. Then, the next year we came back and asked our faculties to do it again, except this time we did double duty. Our teachers were teaching students in the classroom and students at home,” she noted. “Then last year, we’re all in school and not doing double duty. However, we had the highest number of children at home under quarantine or illness. The first two years, we had very little illness and very little quarantining. Last school year, we started out battling COVID with students who were not in school because they were sick or quarantined.”

“There was discontinuity in learning. It’s a fact; it’s really a mark of great achievement that our students have performed in the manner they have given that disruption and that our teachers and our staffs continue to excel,” she continued.

But she observed that along the way, there have been increases in anxiety and social/emotional distress.

“We’ve seen an increase in depression with our children. We’ve seen an increase in mental-health disorders that we did not have pre-pandemic. That’s why I say we’ve changed; we’re different. We’ve learned to not take things for granted and to prioritize the things that are most important. It’s been three years. And while the 76 percent achievement level is great, there still are 24 percent who aren’t at grade level expectations. That’s not where we were pre-pandemic. That number was much lower,” she said.

Diocesan educators also are seeing setbacks with young children just entering school because they aren’t as prepared as the students entering pre-kindergarten or kindergarten prior to the pandemic, according to Dr. Prater, noting that during the pandemic, young schoolchildren were not able to play together and interact, which stunted their social/emotional development.

“We had them in school, but we were socially distancing them. That’s not normal. As a society, I don’t think we’re going to completely understand the impact of these past three years on our kids until down the road. It has been a huge strain on teachers and school leaders because they are dealing with things they’ve never dealt with before,” Dr. Prater said.

So, while the class may have been half empty over the past three school years as COVID dictated the lesson plan, Dr. Prater said the new signs of optimism are unmistakable.

“I feel good about this school year. We have great faculties. We’ve had some great hires. We have great school leaders. We’re starting in a good place,” she noted.

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