Kathleen Walsh spent more than two decades working in inner-city public schools in Brooklyn and 8 years as principal of Valley Stream Memorial Junior High School. Now she has a new challenge — overseeing the 28,000-student Catholic school system on Long Island.
Walsh, who began work in September after the diocese’s previous choice decided against taking the job, is brimming with optimism as the Diocese of Rockville Centre marks National Catholic Schools Week, which started Sunday. Throughout this week, the diocese will focus on the academic, societal and faith-building contributions of a Catholic education.
“We’re looking strong,” Walsh said in an interview last week. “We’re moving full speed ahead. We’re going to continue the legacy that has been created on Long Island for Catholic schools.”
Currently, the diocese has 47 Catholic schools with kindergarten through eighth grades and 10 high schools. Enrollment is holding fairly steady, Walsh said, even as the overall population of school-age children on the Island has been declining.
She said she does not anticipate any school closings in the foreseeable future. In June 2012, because of dwindling enrollment, the diocese closed six elementary schools, provoking an uproar among many parents.
The new superintendent noted that Catholic schools offer an alternative to Common Core-aligned curriculum and testing in public schools, and said she believes many parents remain willing to pay tuition on top of local public school taxes for a faith-based education. That tuition cost is roughly $4,500 a year for K-8 schools and $10,000 annually at the high schools.
Walsh grew up in Brooklyn and went to Catholic schools from elementary school all the way through her doctoral degree from St. John’s University. She had served a year and a half as an assistant superintendent in the diocese’s education department when Bishop William Murphy named her as the schools chief.
Her selection filled a leadership vacancy created when Christopher Marblo, president of The Arts Center of the Capital Region in upstate Troy, notified the diocese in March that he would not take the system’s newly created post of chief executive officer, two weeks after he had accepted the job. Marblo, who was selected after a nationwide search and was slated to take over July 1, said in a statement that his “educational philosophy could conflict with that of the diocese.”
The diocese has put that CEO post on the “back burner” for now, spokesman Sean Dolan said. Instead, the top position is superintendent, as it was for years during Sister Joanne Callahan’s tenure.
Callahan announced in January 2015 that she would step down after 22 years and shift into the new position of secretary of education. She remains in that post, and serves in an advisory role to Walsh, who is running the system on a day-to-day basis.
“I’m where the buck stops,” Walsh said, adding that Sister Joanne “plays a very important part. She will have her finger on the pulse of things.”
Walsh started her career teaching in the Diocese of Brooklyn, then spent a long stint in public schools there. She taught and then moved into administration in public middle and high schools in Ocean Hill-Brownsville and Crown Heights, where she started a new school for students who were struggling academically.
“I loved every minute of it,” Walsh said. “Wherever you go, you can find the good. All parents want good for their kids, no matter where they come from.”
Following her time in Brooklyn, she spent a decade as principal at Valley Stream Memorial Junior High School, and served for three years as an assistant superintendent in the upstate Wappingers Central School District before joining the diocese.
Bill Heidenreich, superintendent of the Valley Stream Central School District and himself a graduate of St. Mary School in East Islip, said he recalled Walsh “as a very competent school leader. She was very good at involving parents in the school. She is definitely strong, but also a listener.”
While the Common Core standards and related testing have spurred heated controversy in Long Island’s public schools, Walsh said Catholic schools are taking a different tack. The diocesan system is utilizing some of the Common Core curriculum, she said, but is not wedded to it and is steering clear of a heavy emphasis on testing.
Diocesan schools conduct standardized testing only in fourth and sixth grades, she said, in contrast to public schools that give standardized exams every year from the third through eighth grades. Teachers’ job evaluations are not based on student test scores, she said.
Catholic school educators “do have to have their finger on the pulse of what their counterparts in the public schools are doing,” Walsh said. But “we are not driven by test results. We’re driven by good teaching and good pedagogical practices.”