The Official Newspaper of the Diocese of Little Rock

Distance learning brings higher education to principals

Subiaco, St. Joseph School leaders study educational leadership through St. Louis

Published: April 28, 2015   
Subiaco Academy Headmaster Matt Stengel (right) and Julie Rochester, principal of St. Joseph School in Paris, attend a virtual distance learning class through St. Louis University April 18 at Subiaco.

One Saturday a month, Subiaco Academy headmaster Matt Stengel and St. Joseph School principal Julie Rochester in Paris take a break from their work of running their schools to, well, go to class.

But this is not an ordinary classroom. Stengel and Rochester settle in at 9 a.m. for the next eight hours to listen and interact with their professor and her students in a classroom 380 miles away at St. Louis University. The Diocese of Little Rock has formed a new partnership with the Jesuit university for distance learning, through an internet video feed program called Fuze, so that teachers can obtain Catholic higher education. The partnership offers master’s and doctorate degrees in educational leadership with licensure through the Missouri Department of Education.

For principals working in the Diocese of Little Rock who have a master’s degree, the program offers an opportunity to earn 18 hours in leadership to meet the Arkansas Nonpublic School Accrediting Association standard for accrediting purposes.

“My thoughts were the need to provide Catholic leadership (training) in the Catholic schools,” said Vernell Bowen, superintendent of Catholic Schools in Arkansas. “Even though I think Matt and Julie are great leaders, it’s going to give them” more training to give back to their schools.

At one time, Bowen said the diocese had a similar partnership with the University of Dallas. When the professor retired and the program was discontinued, Bowen connected with John James, director of the Institute for Catholic Education and an associate professor at St. Louis University. He said the university has a long tradition of training educators and has educated about one-third of public school superintendents in Missouri and most of the Catholic school ones.

“It’s a combination of our growth and our mission,” James said of the partnership. “We need to be of service to the Church beyond just our own archdiocese.”

While the partnership will help current principals continue their education for professional growth and earn a degree in leadership, it’s also part of a contingency plan for developing future principals for Catholic schools, Bowen said.

“It’s two-fold — I had principals leaving and teachers that had master’s degrees in education but not educational leadership, and we were asking them to step up and take a principals’ job,” Bowen said. “Rather than 36 hours (of coursework) at the state schools, we can provide them with courses particularly in Catholic school leadership.”

When Bowen attended state schools, including the University of Central Arkansas in Conway and transitioned to Catholic education, there was a learning curve.

“It was great, but when I went into being a principal at a Catholic school, there were quite a few things I did not receive in the program,” including finances, philosophy and the Catholic mission, Bowen said. “The supervising part (of administration) transferred over real easily. It’s just who we are and what we are about and our philosophy is completely different than in public schools.”

Stengel, a 1999 graduate of Subiaco Academy, received his bachelor’s degree in finance and economics from the University of Arkansas and stayed on to earn his master’s in business administration. He became headmaster two years ago.

“It’s another place for principals in the diocese to have an opportunity for more education,” Stengel said of the program.

The class they’re taking now, which lasts from January to April, is School and Community Relations. At least one class a semester can be taken for the program.

“The class has been really good. It’s real world with people already in the industry. It’s taught by a lady who ran a school in St. Louis for many years. That’s always beneficial,” Stengel said.

Rochester, who is also Stengel’s aunt, said she has taught in Catholic and public schools for 37 years and has a bachelor’s and master’s degree in music education. To be an effective principal for the school, which she took over two years ago, taking the course was a must.

“It’s not a lot of what I didn’t already know, but it certainly reinforced some things and I’ve learned new things,” Rochester said, particularly in public relations.

“That’s the part I’m weak on,” she said. “As far as how to recruit kids I didn’t really know quite what to do and how to do it, I’ve heard some information through others (in the class), in the textbook and through research on things I can do. I have created a little flyer and got some quotes from some of my students and teachers and mailed it out to all the local churches and to parishioners whose children don’t go to school here. I also mailed it out to anybody who called within the year” asking about the school.

While the education is there, the professor is not — in person at least. A large screen is displayed in the classroom at St. Louis with Stengel and Rochester seen front and center. The two also have a view of the professor and students and the ability to hear and interact with them. They also correspond through e-mail.

“I really do like it. I’m so old we did correspondence courses in high school,” Rochester, 63, said with a laugh. She took a Latin course through the University of Arkansas and “everything was mailed back and forth,” adding that using the video “is an excellent way to earn a degree; I am just for it.”  

James said the video feed versus online, along with Stengel and Rochester being there together, even has a religious angle to it.

“It’s an incarnational issue of our faith. God brought about salvation in the flesh, so there always needs to be a flesh component,” James said. “We are still in the flesh but virtual.”

The program costs around $1,000 for each student. Aside from the cost, Stengel and Rochester have to manage work, family life and homework.

“That’s always a challenge because along with a class is really just the obligations of running a school on a daily basis. I have four young children so that brings along some fun challenges too. I guess you just put your head down and keep going,” Stengel said.

Going forward, James said he’s “excited” about the long-term relationship with the diocese. For Catholic administrators like Stengel, it’s just another opportunity to build upon their skills. 

“Any position with any industry you’re going to need to continually learn about your role in the industry,” Stengel said. “I just really appreciate the diocese, the university and Vernell for putting the program together.”

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