Catholic schools return with new staff, focus on safety, student growth
August 16, 2022
Students at St. Christopher Catholic School make use of their digital board. Their first day of school was Monday, Aug. 15. (Photo by Leslie Barrera/Office of Development)
HOUSTON — School is back in session for the 2022-2023 school year for the 12 Catholic high schools and 45 Catholic primary schools in the Archdiocese. For the first time in two years, COVID-19 protocols are not the focus of the new school year.
Dr. Debra Haney, superintendent of Catholic Schools, said, “I am hopeful that we will all be able to serve our schools with greater intensity now that the pandemic is not keeping us from being on our school campuses and intruding on the work that we do.”
Haney said each school will decide its COVID-19 protocols, and masks are optional.
Reneé B. Nuñez, assistant superintendent of Academic Excellence, said academic excellence has not waivered over the years despite challenges that have arisen.
“Our graduates continue to excel in their chosen paths and in service to the Church and mankind,” she said. “As a former teacher, principal, and now assistant superintendent, I am always humbled by the dedication, commitment, and love of Jesus that can be seen in those that serve our students and families in Catholic schools across the Archdiocese.”
Dr. Angela M. Johnson, assistant superintendent of Mission and Catholic Identity, said that even in the midst of the pandemic, “Catholic Schools in the Archdiocese continued to focus on building the Kingdom of God.”
“With the tremendous support from Daniel Cardinal DiNardo, the Auxiliary Bishop Italo Dell’Oro and the numerous chancery offices, the Archdiocese has continued to support and promote the sustainability of Catholic schools, especially with various efforts to increase Catholic school enrollment, improvements made to facilities and to remain focused on the spiritual formation of Catholic School employees, to name a few,” she said.
NEW STAFF IN CSO, SCHOOLS
Haney said she looks forward to being more present on campuses and responsive to the needs of the schools now that she has a complete leadership team in the Catholic Schools Office (CSO).
“The level of expertise and talent within the Catholic Schools Office is a true asset to our Archdiocese,” she said.
Dr. Christopher Pichon joins the CSO as the new assistant superintendent of Operational Vitality. With more than 30 years of experience in education throughout the Houston area, Pichon will facilitate schools’ needs for adopting and maintaining standards for operational vitality in the areas of financial planning, technology, human resources/personnel, facilities maintenance and institutional advancement with contemporary communication.
“My focus for the beginning of the school year is to assimilate into the culture and climate of the Catholic schools system, guide the operational vitality of all schools, and build meaningful relationships with the principals, staff, students and families to support their efforts,” he said.
Dr. Mazie McCoy, who has been a principal at Catholic schools in the Archdiocese, said she is honored and elated to serve as the assistant superintendent of Leadership and Governance.
She said this new role provides the opportunity to work with principals, pastors and advisory school councils.
“I am especially excited to join the amazing leadership team of the CSO to work toward fulfilling our mission of forming disciples, educated in faith and intellect, who transform the world through service and evangelization,” she said.
McCoy said 14 schools within the Archdiocese are opening this year with new principals.
“It is my goal to provide support to the primary school principals as they plan and prepare to welcome faculty, staff and students back on campus,” she said. “I hope to provide all school pastors with the needed support in their roles as ex-officio chief administrators of their schools. I also look forward to reinforcing each school’s advisory school council as they advise the pastor and principal in fulfilling the needs of their schools’ strategic plans.”
All the principals met on a trip to Galveston July 18 to 21 at the Catholic School Principals’ Summer Summit to map the vision for a successful year for students and their campuses.
For Laura Halbardier, principal of St. Mary Catholic School in League City, the upcoming year is all about re-building community.
“I’m looking forward to faith, fellowship and building our community to fill the minds, hearts and spirits of all of our teachers, staff and students.”
Coming together with other administrators, according to Halbardier, was a positive way to begin the year.
“The principals summit is important because, as principals, sometimes it can feel like we’re on an island, and it helps to know we have support from one another and can be an ear to listen or a hand to help other schools who are fulfilling the mission of Catholic education,” she said.
Bernadette Drabek, principal of St. Rose of Lima Catholic School, believes that the principals’ summit offers more than just professional development.
“It’s a great time to get together with our colleagues, learn new things and just be together and share our Christian faith,” she said.
From Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic School in Hitchcock, principal Dr. Emilie Robert had been looking forward to attending her first principals’ summit. During the first few sessions, she shared that the summit was “an opportunity to network, a sharing of ideas and a time for reflection to think about what we are doing as leaders. The CSO has been very good in supporting us and giving us the information that we need to lead an excellent school.”
UPGRADES IN SAFETY
The excitement of ending the 2021-2022 school year was marred with one of the most polarizing school shootings in American history, with 19 students and two teachers dead in a school shooting at Ross Elementary in Uvalde, Texas. The ongoing investigation has revealed multiple failures from several agencies in keeping students safe.
As Catholic schools focus on evangelization and academic excellence, safety remains a priority on every campus.
St. Laurence Catholic School in Sugar Land was conducting an active shooter drill that same day, not having any idea what was happening at Robb Elementary.
“Due to concerns, we ended up calling the police and asking them to please watch over us that half day while we were all gathered in the church,” Suzanne Barto, principal of St. Laurence Catholic School, said. “It ended up being a beautiful and uplifting prayer service to end the year, and we were so thankful when all the students were safely delivered to their parents for the summer.”
Barto said the school conducted two walk-through security audits with local law enforcement over the summer. In August, the school and parish staff will be participating in CRASE (Citizens Response to an Active Shooter Event) training.
Currently, the school is working on upgrading the front office areas to be more secure and has added everything from security film on glass doors/windows to better viewing access from cameras, along with ensuring communication throughout the complex is seamless in the event of an emergency.
“This is just a small portion of what we have done and are working on as part of our newly formed Safety and Security Committee,” she said. “Keeping our school safe is so important, and we all share in this responsibility from communicating concerns and prioritizing mental health to upgrading our facilities and protocols.”
HISTORY AND CONTINUED GROWTH
Johnson said the Catholic schools in the Archdiocese have served as a significant ministry, one that has always aimed for the salvation of souls.
“That long legacy started by the Ursuline Sisters in 1847 in Galveston remains and is very much alive and continues to thrive,” she said. “Over the last three years, there has been an increased presence of religious sisters in Catholic schools, and Catholic school leaders remain steadfast in their commitment to the spiritual formation of all school personnel, lay and religious.”
Johnson said last year, a new director of Faith Formation, Maribel Mendoza-Rojas, was hired in the CSO, and she helped to facilitate the effort for the Synodal Listening Sessions and ensured 100% participation from Archdiocesan Catholic schools.
“The salvific work of the Catholic Church is vibrant in Catholic schools, including but not limited to increased growth of Theology of the Body programs, authentic Catholic religion instruction programs, numerous retreats for students, school employees and school principals and leaders, in addition to over 200,000 hours of Spiritual and Corporal Works of Mercy in the 2021-2022 academic year alone,” she said.
Nuñez said she has witnessed the growth of Catholic education in the Archdiocese, working with parish communities to open two new schools over the years.
“Allowing God to work through me to serve His children has been a huge blessing that I am forever grateful for,” she said.
McCoy said this year’s theme is “Making Moments Matter.”
“Catholic school educators are blessed that every moment with students is an opportunity to touch their minds, hearts and spirits,” she said.
For information on enrolling or teaching in a Catholic school, visit ChooseCatholicSchools.org.
Leslie Barrera contributed to this story.