Aiding Catholic Schools

By Edward Carpenter

Vision of new home in Leon

Reaching back to its earliest Jesuit roots in education, the University of San Francisco is expanding its efforts to shore up Catholic education in San Francisco’s Mission district.

Faculty and students at the University of San Francisco are engaged in a growing effort to bolster Catholic schools in the city’s Mission district, where the rising cost of tuition has strained the pocketbooks of many low-income families and led to declining student enrollment that threatens to close some schools.

For the past year, faculty from USF’s Institute for Catholic Educational Leadership (ICEL) have taken on the role of teacher educators, holding professional development seminars for teachers of schools that are part of the Alliance of Mission District Catholic Schools—a confederation of Catholic schools in San Francisco’s Mission district dedicated to improving learning and reducing costs. The monthly seminars have focused on creating “learning communities” and sharing educational best practices, according to ICEL Director Ray Vercruysse, C.F.C.

The seminars bring together teachers who work in the same grade level in the Mission, San Francisco’s most predominant Catholic neighborhood, and beyond, encouraging them to collaborate on common standards and assessment tools to improve learning, said Br. Vercruysse.

Such strategies have been key to improving educational standards in San Francisco’s inner-city Catholic schools, according to Maureen Huntington, San Francisco Archdiocese superintendent of schools. “Now, we’re looking to implement best practices in all the Alliance schools across the board,” she said.

USF’s collaboration with the Alliance, which operates under the San Francisco Archdiocese, is part of a broader partnership begun more than two years ago by archdiocese Catholic schools in the Mission, Huntington said. Since forming in 2005, the Alliance has welcomed Catholic schools outside the Mission eager to benefit from teacher training, as well as the economic savings from sharing staff and tapping into bulk supply and equipment prices.

Joining forces with the Alliance was a natural step for ICEL since many Catholic schools, especially those in the Mission, have limited resources and less funding than public schools, Br. Vercruysse said. “Collaboration with the Alliance fits with USF’s mission of outreach and getting involved with those on the margins,” he said.

Plus, improving teacher training and student education is one obvious way for the Mission’s struggling Catholic schools to attract and retain students and parents, some of whom have begun opting for free public school in the face of rising tuition costs, he said.

“The goal is to sustain the presence of Catholic schools in the Mission district and provide quality academic programs that families choose,” Br. Vercruysse said.

Declining enrollment has raised concerns that some Mission district schools could be forced to close, something no one wants to see, Br. Vercruysse said. “USF and the San Francisco Archdiocese worry that the closure of Catholic schools in the Mission would send the wrong message to poor Catholic families,” he said.

Since the collaboration with ICEL began, St. Philip School teacher Ellen Bucchianeri-Duane has met and shared ideas and solutions with a number of her fellow second-grade teachers throughout the Alliance. In one instance, Bucchianeri-Duane drew on past experience when advising a fellow teacher on classroom strategies for handling students diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.

“The focus (of the ICEL seminars) has really been to figure out what the best practices are and put them to use, because the Catholic schools have fewer resources than public schools,” said Bucchianeri-Duane, who is working on a master’s degree in Catholic school leadership at USF.

The School of Education, which oversees USF’s collaboration with the Alliance, has also enlisted other departments and colleges to work in Alliance schools, said Brian Gerrard, associate professor of education and director of the Center for Child and Family Development. Currently, 15 of the center’s family counseling students staff San Francisco schools twice a week during the school year, some in Alliance schools.

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