Kristen Byrd, Special to The Catholic Virginian

The Catholic Diocese of Richmond has become the first diocesan school system in the country to earn accreditation from AdvancED — a non-profit and non-partisan company that, according to its report, “combines the knowledge and expertise of a research institute, the skills of a management consulting firm, and the passion of a grassroots movement for education change to empower Pre-K-12 schools and school system to ensure that all learners realize their full potential.”

Ray Honeycutt, superintendent of the Diocese of Richmond’s schools, said in an email that the diocese hosted the first AdvancED visiting team in 2006 after a five-year self-evaluation period. The diocese gathered information, carried out necessary changes, and prepared to be reviewed by another team, which took place in June. 

The report examined 31 “standards” in the school system, encompassing academic programs, cultural context, and community to determine how well the entire system meets the needs of its learners. Among the standards were: Learners engage in activities and learning that are challenging but attainable; learners have equal access to classroom discussions, activities, and support; learners strive to meet or are able to articulate the high expectation established by themselves and/or the teacher; learners make connections from content to real-life experiences; and learners speak and interact respectfully with teacher(s) and each other. The Diocese of Richmond received high scores in all standards.

Each standard was scored on a scale of four possible ratings: needs improvement, emerging, meets expectations, or exceeds expectations. The diocese showed no standards that needed improvement or that were emerging. Ten standards met expectations; 21 exceeded them. 

The accreditation report concluded: “The Catholic Diocese of Richmond is a system that clearly understands the concept of continuous improvement. Its strong, caring, collaborative learner-centric school environments are steeped in Catholic tradition and high academic expectations.”

Community effort

Honeycutt credited the results to everyone in the Catholic education community. 

“The concept of ‘community’ when describing our schools is critical,” he said in an email. “The Office of Catholic Schools and the individual diocesan schools realize that any success we have achieved has a direct correlation to the relationships and support we receive from our stakeholders! Truly, the gifts of time, talent, and treasure cannot be underestimated.” 

The study showed that diocesan schools had a well-managed, supportive, and active learning environment. The report mentioned multiple times that diocesan schools provided an environment of mutual, supportive respect between students and teachers, which allows students to feel comfortable asking questions that facilitate learning.

The report also identified some opportunities for improvement. 

“The success and growth of any institution is defined by its ability to recognize what it does well and its areas of opportunity,” Honeycutt said, adding, “The Office of Catholic Schools, working with our Diocesan School Advisory Board, as well as our schools, will develop a strategic plan to address our areas of opportunity. This will be done this year and phased in as completed.” 

AdvancED has been working with the school system to create a Continuous Improvement System (CIS) to “help map out and navigate a successful improvement journey.” A change from paper-pencil annual testing to thrice-a-year Scantron-based testing, which is digital and offers instant results, has been implemented over the past four years.

Another area the diocese has been working on is communication and connectivity between all 30 of its schools. Now, there is a data portal called RenWeb that “aligns each of our schools to better collect, analyze, and use data to support our collective goals and strategic plans,” said Honeycutt. It tracks demographics, grades, locations, enrollment status, and other data of students and helps identify needs and patterns. 

Great expectations

Of the nearly 9,000 students enrolled in diocesan schools, more than 2,300 are non-Catholic, 1,064 are Hispanic, 724 African American, and 577 Asian. There are several reasons Catholic education has become increasingly popular across all demographics. 

According to Bishop Barry C. Knestout, “Catholic Schools, sponsored by a parish community, are a vital aspect of parish life. They are highly valued as a means of handing on the faith from one generation to the next.” 

High expectations have borne high results, with Catholic school students earning SAT scores 10 percent higher than the national average, a high school graduation rate of 100 percent, and a college acceptance rate of 99 percent. 

Several schools have also earned the National Blue Ribbon Award, which “affirms the hard work of students, educators, families, and communities in creating safe and welcoming schools where students master challenging content,” according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Another enticement is the collaboration between Catholic high schools and four-year colleges, such as Richard Bland College and Mary Baldwin University. 

Pat Patterson, head of school at Roanoke Catholic School (RNS), explained in an email, “Dual-enrollment typically begins in the 11th grade but we may have students beginning in 9th or 10th with Spanish II and above. A student could earn up to nine college credits in a single year — very easily. Typically, a three-credit course will run an RNS student $165. That is an absolute deal!” 

‘Family-like atmosphere’

The AdvanceED report stated, “The overall environment in these classes was warm and welcoming. All classrooms resembled a family-like atmosphere where students and adults treated each other with kindness and respect.” 

Aware of concerns about bullying and suicide, the Diocese of Richmond has implemented an anti-bullying model. 

“Our schools use the ‘Peacemaker’ program to foster an anti-bullying community,” Honeycutt said. “The program focuses on a different value each month and gives students an opportunity to better understand the value of leading, learning, and growing in an environment that reflects what our Savior would want for us.”

Service is another aspect of Catholic education, as thousands of students participate in work camps, volunteer in soup kitchens and events for veterans, attend retreats, and complete other forms of community service each year. 

“Faith, hope, and opportunity come from the gift of a Catholic education,” Honeycutt said. “Our young people are defining their identity in an ever-changing society. Providing them a strong foundation today gives them the tools needed to chart a future path based on strong, well-defined morals and beliefs.”