Roots in Toledo
Knight, 50, is a lifelong Toledo resident, who is proud to claim that, “My roots are in the Diocese.” He grew up in the Rosary Cathedral area, attended the parish school, and recalls that he served as the late Bishop (then Father) James Hoffman’s paper boy. He is a 1978 graduate of St. John’s Jesuit High School and thereafter the University of Toledo, but admits a career in teaching or educational administration was not in his plans at the time of his graduation with a business degree.
Instead, he worked with his father in the family business, Superior Kitchens, for ten years. He enjoyed the work, but says he felt a call to serve the community in some way. Following the lead of an older brother, he returned to school to be trained as a teacher obtaining a teaching certificate in Language Arts Grades 7-12. Taught for three years at St. Joseph School in Sylvania.
Serving the community
His next position was as principal at Holy Trinity School in Assumption, Ohio which was formed by the consolidation of three small schools. He felt a special affinity to the area because his grandparents were married in
St. Mary’s Church in Assumption, and he recalls looking out his office window to see where his parents were buried. In 2004, he was named principal of the
new St. John’s Jesuit Academy, wher he served until last spring.
Part of a network
Knight explains that his new position is different from that of a typical public school superintendent. “Our schools are part of a network, not a school system,” he said. “Each school has a local Principal-Minister who supports and guides those who work with youth formation and education in his or her building. According to the Diocesan structure, the Superintendent is the liaison between that principal-minister and the bishop. I don’t run the schools; they are really run at the local level. I am there to serve those in the schools and support what they do.”
The jobs done by those teachers and administrators (called teacher-ministers in recognition of the religious component of their jobs) have been challenging in recent years. Ten-year enrollment figures are down nearly 27% since 1999-2000, a mirror of the changing demographics of the areas served by Diocesan schools. General economic conditions, including increased costs for employees’ health care, utilities, decreased funding from the State, and rising unemployment have meant big challenges for those who administer the schools.
Knight also recognizes that changing trends in the way people practice and express their religious faith have an impact on Catholic education. Most elementary schools are supported by parishes, and decreasing numbers of worshippers in the pews usually means less support and fewer students for the schools, whose administrators have to find creative ways to provide programs. “Many schools have instituted ‘service hour’ programs to keep parents involved,” he said. “The parents may choose to volunteer at parish events, in the school library or cafeteria, at dances, etc. And their volunteering does help a great deal, but the schools cannot do without the money that comes from tuition payments and the parish.
He continued, “I would say that our two biggest challenges are funding our schools, and the impact of changing demographics,” Knight noted. “We are always looking for ways to make our schools affordable. Parents do have to pay tuition for their children to attend our schools, but we work hard to create a culture that shows people there is something special going on in our schools. We want parents to see that we are offering things that their children can’t get anywhere else.”
“At the same time, we have to be realistic. The changing demographics force us to take a very close look at how we utilize the resources we do have. In some cases, that means we have to close schools, or consolidate schools. It can be a painful thing to make those decisions because our schools all have rich traditions. Those decisions mean that teachers and other staff members lose jobs, and children have to go to a new building. It’s the same painful process that is happening in public systems everywhere.”
One consolidation between Our Lady of Lourdes School and Little Flower School, has resulted in the formation of the new St. Benedict School, in the former Little Flower Building. Principal Carol Huss explains that the new school opened this fall “stronger than ever” as result of a long process of collaboration and cooperation. “We incorporated ideas and input from our students, faculty, and families on choosing the new name, new uniforms, and new mascot. We decided a year ago that the time was right to be proactive and collaborate our efforts to form a new entity that would be strong, vibrant, and have the best that both schools could offer. Our biggest goal was to secure the future of Catholic education so that the children have the best we can offer.”
Collaboration will be a guiding principle for Knight. In his new position, he expects to work on cultivating better relationships with officials of the Toledo Public Schools. “They have the same concerns for their students that we do, especially the funding. We have different missions, but we are all concerned about the children in our schools.”
Some of those public school children have chosen to take advantage of the State of Ohio’s Education Choice program. That initiative gives funds to families whose ‘home’ public schools have been in “Academic Emergency” or “Academic Watch” for two of the last three years. Those funds can be used to pay tuition at private schools that meet state guidelines. The program has also brought some special challenges to the administrators and teachers in Diocesan schools.
“We have had concern over the clash of cultures for the students who come from public schools,” Knight admits. “Some of them need help adjusting to the expectations our teachers have about homework and discipline. Some parents need help as they have more involvement with the teachers at the new schools. Some of the students aren’t familiar with the religious component of our schools. But those problems are often helped by ‘up-front’ orientation programs for the new students, and introductory programs about our faith. We don’t demand that those students join our church, only that they see that we won’t compromise about the foundation for our system. They do attend Mass, and they do follow service hour requirements for the schools. We have a richness of tradition in our schools, and we think exposing all students to it will be beneficial to them.”
In spite of the challenges, Knight is working with dedicated teachers, administrators, and staff people. “It is uplifting to see so many good people in our schools. The future will bring changes to the Catholic schools, but I think our schools are an important part of their neighborhoods and their communities. Our schools are doing a great job.”