Back to School 2018

August 14, 2018

A young student colors a butterfly at Queen of Peace Catholic School in Houston. More than 19,000 students in Catholic schools from Lake Jackson to Kingwood start the new school year in August. Photo by James Ramos/Herald.

When Debra Haney was asked by Daniel Cardinal DiNardo to serve as interim superintendent of Catholic Schools last summer, it was improbable to anticipate the chain of events that were to come in the fall.

“I had no idea what the task ahead would be as none of us knew that Hurricane Harvey would soon change all of our lives forever,” she said. “The major events that happened in just the first semester that affected us all is just amazing to me.”

Haney also cited other happenings, even highlights, outside of Harvey that affected Galveston-Houston this past year, including the Houston Astros’ World Series Championship and a never-expected snowfall in December. Of course, the schools and families impacted by Hurricane Harvey — including two Catholic schools that had to be temporarily relocated — remained front and center in everyone’s mind and action.

“Looking back, I am happy to say that we made it through the year being able to ensure the maximum number of school days for our students with as much instruction as humanly possible,” she said. “It is a testament to the school communities and their leadership teams that our students only missed between five to 10 days of school (depending on the damage the school incurred) after such a devastating and historical event. I am also humbled to say that — through the generosity of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the National Catholic Educational Association, other dioceses in Texas and around the country, parishioners in our Archdiocese, foundations and our own schools and families — no student had to leave our schools this year due to the financial impact of Harvey on their family.”

Haney, who was appointed superintendent by Cardinal DiNardo last January, said the Catholic Schools Office (CSO) and the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston never wavered in remaining committed to the families to ensure a stable and secure environment at school.

This month, 18,570-plus students, 1,850 teachers head back to class at 60 Catholic schools across the Archdiocese.

“For our schools, we have been through a lot in a short period of time and whether the events were happy or sad, we did it together,” she said. “We have been able to witness the goodness of people in trying times and the beauty of the human spirit in this last year; for this, I am grateful.”

This past academic year also provided a unique educational experience for Haney and the CSO, particularly in Harvey’s immediate aftermath and recovery.

“I learned that there are many selfless people that want to help and that we need to be best prepared to give people ways to help that are immediate, tangible and meaningful,” she said. “That quick and consistent communication with leaders at the schools was imperative for us to serve our schools best. Ensuring that students have the emotional support that they needed was critical as they returned to school and heard about the experiences of their classmates, teachers, and their parish and school communities.”

Haney said the CSO is still working to support the emotional needs of the students whose homes remain under construction or whose parents have suffered major financial hardships due to the storms.

Recovery and return

“We are pleased to say that the two displaced schools are returning home this August, and I know that this will be a happy day for them,” Haney said. “True Cross in Dickinson will have completed the repairs to their campus and will be functioning with a new ‘normal.’ St. Francis of Assisi will be back on their campus in temporary buildings and preparing throughout the year to move to another location. The new location will be a more permanent building that can be used until a new school can be built to replace the temporary buildings.”

St. Francis of Assisi principal Tawana Fulmer is looking forward returning back home.

“What I am most looking forward to with the return to our campus is getting to work alongside Farther Martin and the parishioners; students and teachers returning to their classrooms and being able to grow our school community with the help of all of our community partners,” she said. “I feel blessed to return to St. Francis. We have missed being on our home campus and getting to participate in the events that make us unique as a community.”

Fulmer said the school's teachers, staff and faculty have been — as always — actively preparing for the new school year.

St. Francis teachers attended summer staff development, including formation for science, technology, engineering and math, as well additional program support training, according to Fulmer.

At True Cross School, principal Yolanda Agrella said her staff is equally as committed to their students.

“The teachers are working to get their classrooms together,” she said. By early August, the school was still receiving books, furniture and instructional materials to be fully prepared for the new academic year.

The school is “truly committed to making the school a stellar learning environment,” she said.
Despite the stressful challenges wrought by Harvey, both Fulmer and Agrella were deeply thankful for the help the two schools saw and received from people across the world.

“I am in awe of the numbers of people and Catholic Schools around the nation and world,” said Agrella. “These folks sent us letters of encouragement and funds to help us rebuild. My faculty and I were brought to tears many times during the year. We actually experienced the hands of our Lord working through them. Hurricane Harvey strengthened our faith and our belief that all things are possible with God.”

Fulmer agreed and said “The consistent donations of time, talents and treasures of churches across the United States are forever written on our hearts and minds,” Fulmer said. “We are eternally grateful for their example of service, love and continual prayer and we look forward to continuing to grow in all of those areas moving forward.”

CSO's new additions

Haney said her experiences from the last year have impacted how the CSO will work with individual schools and pastors.

“Our hope is to develop stronger relationships with individual campuses so that our support can be more productive and effective,” she said. “Our goal is to be more present on campuses to share our support of the work being done for our students.”

Haney said the processes for planning have also changed as the CSO is better utilizing the feedback from principals and pastors to inform and direct their work.

“We have already started to do so by utilizing the input we have received from them to edit our principal evaluation form,” she said. “We have also used our surveys to principals to help us plan for the future.”

“The Catholic schools are truly critical to the life of their communities and work tirelessly to meet the individual needs of students,” she said. “The impact of the experience for students and families can literally be life-changing.”

Haney said she is thrilled with the new additions to the CSO.

Assistant Superintendent of Urban Achievement Dr. Angela Johnson replaced Lytia Reese, who now serves as the associate superintendent. Reneé B. Nunez, founding principal at St. Anthony of Padua Catholic School in The Woodlands as well as St. Laurence Catholic School in Sugar Land, is now serving as the assistant superintendent of Curriculum, Assessment and Data. Kimberly Pursch is the new assistant superintendent of stewardship.

“The team that has been assembled to serve the Catholic schools of the Archdiocese is a dynamic, vibrant, and energetic group of outstanding professionals,” Haney said. “We are as unique and diverse as the population that we serve, and we each bring to the team a desire to do what is best for our students in the most professional and responsible manner.”

The Catholic schools in the Archdiocese “are the best choice for a premier education in the Galveston-Houston area,” Haney said, and the CSO is working hard to engage parents and find ways to share the amazing things that are happening within Catholic schools.