By HEATHER WRIGHT — Mary Pat Donoghue grew up in Hyattsville and was a student, teacher, vice principal and principal at St. Jerome Academy (SJA). From 2009 to 2016, Donoghue shepherded a failing school on the verge of being shut down to a thriving one, complete with waiting lists and national media attention. Numerous Catholic schools across the country, including St. John Bosco Schools in East Rochester, N.Y., Our Lady of Lourdes in Denver, Colo., and Star of the Sea in San Francisco, Calif., have either directly implemented or been influenced by SJA’s classical curriculum. (Disclosure: This interviewer has two children who attend SJA.)
After departing from SJA in 2016, Donoghue worked as the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education director of school services, consulting with dioceses and schools across the country on how to successfully implement a classical education model.
In August 2018, Donoghue became the executive director of the Secretariat of Catholic Education for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). The Secretariat of Catholic Education is the team of staff members that assists the USCCB Committee on Catholic Education, which is comprised of eight bishops and currently chaired by Bishop Michael Barber of Oakland. According to the USCCB Catholic Education website, “We are deeply committed to supporting the proclamation of the Gospel through our primary and secondary Catholic Schools, Catholic higher education, campus ministry, certification for ecclesial ministry, and support of children and parents through advocacy and public policy in our Nation’s Capital.”
The Hyattsville Life & Times (HL&T) recently caught up with Donoghue in her USCCB office.
(This interview has been edited for readability and space constraints.)
HL&T: How and why did you decide it was the right time to leave SJA?
MPD: First of all, when you’re called to do a transition, as we were at St. Jerome’s, there’s a certain energy and skill set that fits that very, very well. It was my school, and I was like, “It’s going to close over my dead body.” I poured myself into keeping it open. And then, it’s like burning a lot of fuel for the launch, and I was slowly beginning to discern that I did burn a lot of fuel at the launch, and someone else probably needs to come in and fly it now. So for the good of the school, for the good of myself, I realized that it was time to step away and let new leadership take ownership.
HL&T: What did your experience at SJA teach you about implementing the classical education model?
MPD: Several things. First, before we even got to the classical model, it was simply what a leader has to do in the recognition of a failing situation. In my consultancy work [with the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education], I dealt with a lot of principals who were in similar situations, or who knew that they would be if things didn’t change, so I brought that piece in, that process of having to take that inventory of ourselves — which is painful and difficult — and then to take the next step, which is to define really what’s at heart the problem. In Catholic education, one of the things that I think is natural and human, but ultimately defeating, is this constant treating the symptoms, like treating enrollment or insufficient financing, as if it’s the stand-alone problem, when our time is better spent figuring out what’s at the heart of it.
In terms of helping faculties and staff understand the classical model, I think the thing that I brought was understanding how different it could be for them. But also how similar they would find it to what had always been just good pedagogy. I was a teacher to my faculty for the first four or five years. Every faculty meeting was structured to enlighten or to deepen some understanding of this model. I took all that in, and then I could take that on the road to another school.
HL&T: How does your previous experience at SJA impact what you do now?
MPD: My experience at St. Jerome’s provides a grounding for the work I do here. Here, I’m doing Catholic education at a 30,000-foot level, but the reality is that there are teachers, and there are children, and there are families on the ground. So I may be looking at a piece of policy, for example, but I’m thinking about how I know this would impact a school community, and I know that because of my time at St. Jerome’s.
HL&T: What are you focused on, and passionate about, now in your position with the USCCB?
MPD: Some of the work I’ve done internally with other colleagues has been really trying to think deeply about how we can better educate and form our schools around this idea of the dignity of the human person. Back in November, the bishops issued a pastoral letter against racism, and one of the first things I did in this new job was to work with the [Catholic Education] committee here [and people] from other offices on developing curricular materials.
One thing that the classical curriculum does very well is it seeks to assist students in understanding the nature of something by delving down deeply into its roots. I didn’t want to do some slapdash, temporary kind of project, but rather to start thinking about how through Scripture and through church teaching and through primary sources in history, our kids can come to understand racism and why it is inherently evil.
Another passion is to make our schools accessible to kids with diverse learning needs. First of all, that’s an imperative that has a pro-life basis, in my opinion. We certainly want to encourage life, and we know that, for example, a great number of children with Down Syndrome are aborted. Our schools have to be ready, have to do our best to try to accommodate and to welcome those children into our community. The newly arriving immigrant [children] also — we need to find them and help them find us.
HL&T: Is there anything else you’d like to mention about education reform in the church?
MPD: If you look at the statistics on Catholic education, every single year we have a net loss of schools, and that’s been true for the last couple of decades. So there is certainly an urgency on all levels to continue efforts to look at what’s driving that and how that can be remedied, in order to preserve what really is the church’s best evangelical vehicle, which is our schools.
HL&T: What is your vision for Catholic education in the future?
MPD: There’s an army of people looking at sustainability, and I think that’s certainly important. Second to that, I think, is to help Catholic educators come to a deeper awareness of the riches of the church’s own intellectual tradition. And at the same time, expand our ability to serve those that really are mandated by our mission to serve: the poor, the marginalized, that diverse learner, etc.