St. Paul principal sees parish, school as an invaluable partnership

By Mary Morrell | Correspondent

Dr. Ryan Killeen

When Dr. Ryan Killeen asked pastors and principals to describe their perception of the significance of the Catholic school in their parish communities, their responses ran the gamut of eye-opening, encouraging, and, sometimes, funny with one pastor saying, “Well, the school is the life of the parish. If it was all adults, it would get pretty dull. And adults have big egos so you have to deal with that. The children liven up the place.”

Dr. Killeen, who serves as principal of St. Paul School, Princeton, believed the questions, the responses and the results of the study from which they came – part of the research undertaken for his doctoral dissertation – could be of benefit to school and parish leadership in a time when the future of Catholic Schools is in a period of transition.

On Jan. 24, as part of the St. Paul Parish Adult Faith Formation series, Dr. Killeen offered a presentation on “Catholic Schools and the Parish: A Partnership with Future,” focusing in great part on the topic of his study – the sustainability of Catholic parish elementary schools in the 21st century and the driving forces of leadership.

Dr. Killeen, who has spent the greater part of his professional life in Catholic schools, acknowledged taking up this research topic “to advance the mission of Catholic schools,” noting that the most prevalent model of Catholic schools has always been, and remains, the parish elementary school. He stressed that Catholic schools are not simply private schools but a faith-based arm of a larger parish.

Focusing on the unique relationship that exists between parishes and schools, Dr. Killeen spoke about what is happening in some places, when schools sever ties with parishes and become regional schools.

“A lot is lost, not just for the school but for the parish, as well,” he said. “When a school is not there long term, how does this affect the life of the parish?”

Some 80 pastors and 80 principals from within the Dioceses of Trenton, Metuchen and Paterson were invited to participate in the study, with five principals and five pastors selected randomly to take part in confidential interviews.

Their responses, said Dr. Killeen, were reflective of the challenges to Catholic school sustainability during a time that may be the next stage of evolution in the history of Catholic schools, particularly in the areas of financial viability, available parish resources and the need to find alternate school funding sources.

Of strong concern is the responsibility to balance conflicting needs, as addressed by one pastor in the study: “While a strong advocate of Catholic education, I do not feel that the school should stay open at all costs. There needs to be parish life beyond Catholic schools. The bottom line problem for most of us is finances. Parents are not willing to pay cost-based tuition.”

The concern about the priorities of parents and the Catholic identity of families is notable among pastors, said Dr. Killeen, while on the other hand, principals consider the school as a positive drive of faith formation.

Said one principal, “I think the parish sees how prepared these students are for the next step in their education and how vitally important they are to the parish. The students are for the most part active participants in the life of the parish – altar servers, choir, cantor – the youth ministry is growing again … They are an integral part of the parish. So, [students] see themselves not as a separate entity, but as furthering the mission of the parish as well.”

Dr. Killeen shared that while there were differences between the concerns of pastors and principals, those who responded were nearly unanimous in one thing – the need for a strong positive collaboration among pastors and principals as school leaders.

However, said Dr. Killeen, the bottom line when it comes to the sustainability of Catholic schools is “it is all of our responsibilities to do as much as we can, not just pastor or principal, the parents or students, the parish administrators or staff. We all have a stake in this.”

Dr. Killeen will offer a similar presentation at the spring conference of the Mercer/Burlington County PTA.

Having previously served as supervisor in the Mercer County Performing Arts High School, and assistant principal in St. Rose High School, Belmar, Dr. Killeen received a master’s degree in education from the Seton Hall Catholic School Leadership Program, and his doctoral degree in education leadership from Seton Hall University, South Orange.

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