Valenti, Catholic schools superintendent, calls values one reason the system works

A TUESDAY INTERVIEW Q&A

July 07, 1992|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Staff Writer

Ronald J. Valenti has become the principal's principal. For two years, the 49-year-old Dr. Valenti has been secretary of the Department of Education Ministries for the Archdiocese of Baltimore. Recently, he also took over the job of superintendent of the 101 Catholic elementary and secondary schools in the archdiocese.

A native of the Italian neighborhoods of south Philadelphia, Dr. Valenti spent 25 years as a teacher and administrator in that city's Catholic schools -- he was the first lay principal of a high school in that archdiocese -- before coming to Baltimore.

Q: The current advertising campaign emphasizes that Catholic schools teach values. How important a part of Catholic education is that?

A: It is a central part, but it should not be misunderstood. It's not the idea of imposing a value system, but rather a recognition that there should be a value system, that we need one to operate as a society, that we cannot be amoral, that values can't be something that we just don't want to deal with.

The studies about why Catholic education is successful show that values are a part of that success because they influence the entire environment of the school, what we believe about the individual, the expectations that we have, the involvement we expect as a faith community and as a school community.

It's not a matter of proselytizing. It's a strong belief in the spiritual development of the individual, and an integration of that into the curriculum and the social and emotional development of our students. To some extent, I think this is what is lacking in our society these days.

People say all that sounds grandiose, but your kids still drink. Of course. Our kids are kids. Just because they come into a Catholic school does not mean they levitate off the floor, sprout wings and halos. We recognize that they are human beings with limitations. We haven't cornered the market on sanctity. We're not goody-goody. Our principals have the same kinds of frustrations. But they have a reference point, values, to go back to, to fall back on. And that helps.

Q: Do you feel that people still have distorted stereotypical views of Catholic schools?

A: I am always reminded of that ad for the car that shows the rigid teacher telling the little kid to stay within the lines of his coloring book and he goes right over them. A lot of people think Catholic education is just about staying within the lines.

There's a combination there that's the beauty and energy of education. There is discipline, really self-discipline, in the tradition of Catholic education. You are presented with a degree of expectations and demands and if you don't measure up, there are consequences you must be responsible for.

But, on the other side, is innovation and creativity. We want teachers to recognize that they are preparing students to be the leaders of 20 or 30 years from now, to confront the issues and concerns that they will face. That's where we're saying, 'Don't stay within the lines, don't be afraid of the questions that young people ask. Confront them.' That's a challenge, but it's exciting.

I'm not decrying what happened years ago, the teaching that went on then. That was a particular mode of thinking that was true even in the public schools. But without violating the integrity of why our schools were established, it's obvious we have to broaden our horizons. In the inner city, our predominant population is non-Catholic. Our presence in those neighborhoods is a recognition that people want an alternative way of educating their children.

Religion is still an integral part of our whole approach. An important part of what we are about is to ensure that we hand down the faith. By the same token, when we have a non-Catholic population, we are enriched by that.

There's a beautiful dynamic that takes place as we present to them who we are and they present to us who they are. What we get from that experience is a real understanding of human values.

Our schools are different from 50 years ago, or even 20 years ago. For one thing, our faculty is now maybe 90 percent lay people. But many people still look at us as what we used to be. To a certain extent, we still are that way, as those traditions are very important to us. But now we must be adaptable.

As superintendent, my job is to implement the vision of Archbishop [William H.] Keeler, who is very concerned about the schools, and who sees how we need to bring them into the '90s, into the next century, along with our church, to be more inclusive.

Q: The increase in lay faculty brings a larger financial burden, does it not?

A: Yes, and along with increased costs goes higher tuitions. We charge at cost. At the elementary level that varies from about $1,700 to $2,100 per year. Our financial concerns are always a problem as we try to decide how to establish a proper stewardship.

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