AP NEWS

Growing pains at Greenwich Catholic

April 9, 2019

The pews empty and the collection basket dries up. Enrollment declines and schools operate in the red.

The picture is familiar in Catholic churches and schools nationwide. But as Bishop Frank Caggiano proposes mergers of Catholic schools in Fairfield County, Greenwich Catholic School, the product of seven parochial schools that merged in 1979, is thriving, school officials say.

Caggiano’s plan to staunch the blood flow threatening the life of Catholic education includes establishing “academies” by merging parochial schools and turning over control to lay people, plus introducing some technology in the classroom to help teachers personalize learning.

The Bridgeport diocese has academies in Greenwich, Stamford, Shelton and Bridgeport, which are run by lay boards, who make decisions related to strategic planning and ensure the financial health and academic success of their schools.

“The ultimate goal in this governance structure is that we empower the local community to lead their school,” Diocese of Bridgeport Superintendent of Schools Steven Cheeseman said.

The Greenwich Catholic School Board of Directors, parents of current and former GCS students, assumed responsibilities on July 1, 2018. GCS Principal Patrice Kopas and Cheeseman also are members of the board.

The board has taken strides to reduce teacher turnover, improve finances, integrate STEM across disciplines, buy technology for the classrooms and improve the school atmosphere — starting with a 10 percent tuition increase it announced in a letter in February.

Some say they are happy with the decisions the board is making and the direction of the school. But others, provoked by a hike that was three times the increase of last year, question the board’s rise to power and its authority to raise tuition, and worry about the future of the school’s Catholic identity.

Since the announcement, 95 percent of current students have enrolled for next year. But to address parent concerns about the board and its planned improvements, the school will have a town hall-style meeting this Wednesday.

The genesis of the board

Prompted by the tuition hike, a group of parents raised concerns about the board — including who chose the members, why they were chosen and why their meetings are closed — all concerns the superintendent said he understands.

“In any time of transition, there will be questions of, ‘How did we get there?’” Cheeseman said. “Sometimes, people forget the steps that happened two years ago.”

That is when members of the Greenwich Catholic Advisory Board, a group that served as a conduit between the school and the diocese, which used to handle strategic planning, finances and academics in its schools, asked to be considered to make the switch to greater lay control, Cheeseman said.

Some advisory board members applied to be on the new panel of directors, while others were tapped for competencies in finance, facilities, marketing and legal matters, he said.

“The (Greenwich Catholic) board had done an incredible job as an advisory board,” he said. “We were happy to consider their request and move them into that model.”

Cheeseman commended the advisory board for making progress and proving itself capable of handling the leadership model.

“It was a recognition of our strength, of the good things happening here,” GCS board Chair Mario Gatzambide said.

Advisory members recommended themselves for the initial board, but Cheeseman said other parents should get involved in the school’s various committees. These subgroups are where “the real work gets done,” Cheeseman said, and are pipelines for joining the Board of Directors.

For parents who have concerns about the board’s governance, the primary contact should be the principal, he said.

That happened after the tuition hike was announced.

The tuition increase

On Feb. 8, the half-day inaugurating February vacation, the school board announced in a letter to parents that the 2019-20 tuition would increase from $12,200 to $13,500. Three-quarters of the extra funds would go toward hiring new teachers and giving raises to current teachers, board members wrote. The rest would go toward updating curriculum and adding access to technology.

The school has not seen such a high increase since 2014, when tuition increased 8 percent, from $9,775 to $10,600. Every year since, tuition increases have stayed between 3 and 4 percent.

Not all parents were concerned by the letter announcing the increase, but it upset enough that the principal apologized for the timing and tone of the letter in a subsequent Parent Association meeting, parents in attendance confirmed.

Some took the $1,300 increase as a sign that the directors are taking parent wishes for better teachers receiving higher compensation seriously.

GCS teachers make 45 percent less than Greenwich private and public school teachers, school officials said in the letter.

“We need to retain good talent, but salaries were restricted by the diocese. Now we get to fulfill those wishes,” parent Jennifer Koenigsberger said. “In three or more years, good teachers have left without much notice because they needed to support their families.”

Since the announcement, next year’s salaries have been approved and a hiring committee started interviewing candidates for new positions, including a dean of student life and an assistant principal for academics, GCS Communications Director Noelle Debes said.

“Teachers are aware of all the work that has gone into the process and are excited to see that their hard work and dedication is being recognized,” Debes said in an email.

But other parents said they were blind-sided by the letter, which justified an increase exceeding the customary $400 to $500 bump by comparing GCS to area private schools. One outcome of the hike is that less than half of parents have donated to the school’s annual fundraiser, they said.

For these parents, the cost increase reveals a disconnect between board members and some families. They cite the invocation of private schools to support their concern that the board wants to fashion GCS after Brunswick School, Greenwich Academy, King School or Sacred Heart Greenwich.

If rates continue to go up, they said, it will affect the catholicity of the community. They predict the rising costs will discourage practicing Catholics, who tend to have larger families, from staying.

The school offers a $1,000 discount to parishioners of the affiliated St. Michael’s Church, plus $500 off per child in the school, Gatzambide said. The board has also considered changing tuition rates for families with multiple children enrolled.

Like Koenigsberger, parent Nina Balestriere did not find the letter explaining the tuition increase offensive, she said.

“I was shocked when I heard people were flipping out about it,” she said.

Gatzambide said future tuition increases will depend on enrollment, community feedback and short- and long-term plans.

Catholic identity

The tuition increase, along with other coming changes to the school — such as investments in technology — reflect differences in how some conceive of a Catholic education.

The remaining 25 percent of the increase is to pay for a consultant to review and update the school’s curriculum, and to invest in technology. Both play into the diocese’s plan to roll out personalized learning on devices over the next three years, Kopas said.

The diocese will not pair each student with a device, but will encourage enough tech to free up teachers to help students who have different learning styles, Cheeseman said.

Tech is critical to personalized instruction, Kopas said, but many parents like GCS because it does not give iPads or Chromebooks to every child.

“When we have prospective families come, they say, ‘Are you one-to-one?’” meaning fully individualized, “and we say, ‘No,’ and they say, ‘Good, we don’t want that,’” Kopas said.

Still there are signs that some families who want what they consider to be a more classical Catholic education are moving away from diocesan schools.

Kimberly Quatela, the headmistress of Regina Pacis Academy, a non-diocesan school in Norwalk, with its official Catholic designation pending, saw an uptick in GCS families touring her school after the tuition letter went out, which she described as an “underground” movement.

New RPA families come from GCS, St. Aloysius in New Canaan and Stamford Academy. The school was founded by families who were dissatisfied with diocesan schools, Quatela said. Regina Pacis Academy teaches works from Greek and Latin antiquity, the Latin language and the great books of Western civilization, and focuses on cultivating an appreciation of “truth, goodness and beauty,” she said.

Diocesan schools that depart from this teaching tradition, aligning their curricula with national standards and increasing the use of technology, are competing with public schools, and from the “keep up with the Joneses” model, a new wave of dissatisfied parents has emerged, Quatela said.

“If you’re trying to run a Catholic school you’re either going to stand strong and not be fearful, and know that’s an asset, not a liability, or you’re going to try to compete with the public and private schools,” Quatela said.

For Cheeseman, being open to different curricula and technology makes the diocese’s schools more universal, and thus, more catholic. Any model works as long as faith is at the center, he said.

“Whether you use a computer or use an original text, it doesn’t matter how you do it, it’s that you’re weaving in the centrality of Catholic faith into it,” he said. “It’s just another choice in what type of school they would like to go to.”

While the parents dissatisfied with the tuition hike worry the school is departing from traditionally Catholic ways of teaching, other parents see the Catholic identity strengthening through more scheduled masses and a school-wide service day.

“It’s not about turning into a fancy, independent school in Greenwich,” Koenigsberger said. “The Catholic identity part has deepened.”

jo.kroeker@hearstmediact.com