Keeping faith in education Educator: With skill and energy, Ronald J. Valenti oversees the 102 schools in the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

September 09, 1997|By Mary Maushard | Mary Maushard,SUN STAFF

Ronald J. Valenti is an educator, a cook and an artist. He lays no claim to acrobatics.

But as superintendent of 102 schools in the Archdiocese of Baltimore, he balances the desire for traditional Roman Catholic school curriculum and stability with the demand for sophisticated teaching and state-of-the-art technology.

He does it with a staff of six administrators, handling the conflicting needs of a diverse system of 35,000 students and 2,800 teachers and principals spread across half of Maryland, from Frostburg to Bel Air to Annapolis.

"We've always had a very substantive core curriculum. We don't want to lose ground there. But we have to be competitive -- in technology, in math and science, in foreign languages. We have to keep that balance," said the 54-year-old Valenti, entering his fifth year as head of the archdiocesan schools.

The soft-spoken Valenti leads a system marked by change and growth. In some schools, only a small percentage of the students are Catholic. Systemwide, only about 10 percent of the staff are nuns and priests -- a sharp contrast to the late 1960s.

Though enrollment has grown about 3 percent annually for the past six years, some Baltimore City schools have seen enrollment plummet as neighborhoods change and Catholic families move away. The schools, which set their own tuition, fight to keep themselves affordable, but financial pressures are the main reason children leave Catholic schools.

Those who work with Valenti say he has the skills and the personality to deal with the changes.

"He is energetic, visionary, a man who can get people to believe in his vision for the good of the whole," said Kevin Parson, principal of St. Katherine School in Baltimore. "He exemplifies Christian values and Christian beliefs."

One measure of that energy is Valenti's weekly visits to schools throughout the archdiocese -- visits that sometimes strike fear in the ranks of teachers and principals, who lean on their students to press their uniforms and be on their best behavior.

"He's constantly on the run. He gets out and around to all the schools," said Bill Blaul, a former spokesman for the archdiocese.

For the superintendent, the visits are pure pleasure.

"When I visit the schools, I see all this excitement," said Valenti. "You have to see it and hear it from the teachers and the students."

A man who often wears bright ties adorned with school buses and cartoon characters, Valenti has worked in Catholic schools for 30 years and attended his share before that. He grew up in the Italian neighborhoods of South Philadelphia and spent seven years in the seminary, studying to be a priest during high school and college.

"When I left the seminary, I then went to LaSalle College to get my degree," Valenti said.

From there, he became a teacher for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. In 1975, the late Cardinal John Krol -- known for his conservatism -- appointed Valenti the first lay principal in that diocese, at Bishop Shanahan High School in West Chester, Pa.

"For the cardinal to make that kind of decision was the harbinger of what was to come," Valenti said. "It was quite an affirmation for the lay people in the schools at that time."

Valenti was a principal for 15 years, taking the job with the Baltimore Archdiocese "at a point in my own professional life when I thought, 'Is there something else I could accomplish?' "

Valenti, his wife, Mary, and their three children moved to Bel Air. She is an associate professor in computer studies at Harford Community College. His two daughters and one son, all in their 20s, no longer live at home.

During his career, Valenti has seen Catholic schools transformed from low-cost parish schools, staffed largely by nuns and priests, to high-budget, tuition-financed schools that might have one or two clergy memberson the faculty.

Once students were all Catholics, but they now come from many faiths -- and no faith -- as families searching for alternatives to public schools view parochial schools as smaller, safer and more disciplined and traditional in their approach to learning.

"We are open to anybody, but it's not just a refuge," said Valenti. "When you say 'yes' to us, you are saying yes to educating the total child to a form of values. Something has to rub off in that atmosphere day in and day out."

While changing demographics and economics have reduced enrollment at many Catholic elementary schools -- and even forced Holy Rosary School in Fells Point to close last spring -- nearly a third of the archdiocesan students are still in Baltimore's Catholic schools.

A new business partnership is providing nearly $5.5 million in tuition assistance for students this year who could not otherwise attend those schools.

Meanwhile, the empty seats in some schools must be balanced with the waiting lists in all other areas of the archdiocese, said Valenti. Committees are working in several counties to see if new schools or additions to existing schools are feasible.

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