Local education leaders have national voices

Written by Mary Beth Peabody

Marianela Nunez is a bridge builder for Latino families and South Jersey Catholic Schools. Dr. Bill Watson leads all efforts related to curriculum and assessment for the schools. Recognized as leaders in their fields, the duo’s footprints are showing up a long way from South Jersey.

Nunez: Exploring parental choice and Latino enrollment

In June of this year, Nunez attended the Reform Leaders Summit on parental choice in education as an invited participant with a fully-paid fellowship. She spent three days in New Orleans with a distinguished group of educators, legislators, policymakers and researchers to explore the topic. The cohort of about 35 leaders will convene again in Tampa, January 2019 and Indianapolis next May.

“The emphasis is allowing every parent to have the money that goes to a child’s education so the parents can choose” said Nunez. “Catholic schools would tremendously benefit if we place the money in parents’ hands and let them choose where to send their children. It would totally change the landscape of how education works.”

The Reform Leaders Summit is part of the University of Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE) and was started at the request of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Marianela Nunez and Dr. Bill Watson compare notes on their separate trips to Notre Dame for national education conferences. Nunez is field consultant Latino enrollment for the Camden Diocese’s Office of Catholic Schools, and Watson is director of curriculum and assessment. Photo by Jim McBride

Nunez explained that some group members have been studying parental choice for years, while others are learning more about the concept and sorting through different models, such as vouchers and tax credits. A new cohort is selected each year to develop additional leaders who can advocate for parental choice in their home states.

Nunez helps Latino families find a home in South Jersey Catholic schools. She speaks about the schools at Spanish Masses, helps with school tours, paperwork and registration, finds and develops Madrinas (Spanish word for godmother) to work with families locally, serves as a translator, and stays in touch with families to make sure the school experience is a positive one.

Since Nunez joined the diocese in 2014, Latino enrollment in South Jersey Catholic elementary schools has increased by 75 percent.

Less than two weeks after her New Orleans trip, Nunez was packing her bags again, headed for a three-day conference that focused on ways to make Catholic schools in the United States even better – for the Latino community and all students. More than 100 leaders from Catholic schools across the country attended the ACE-sponsored event at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana.

“ACE wants to be the best support for Catholic education in the country. They want to create better leaders,” said Nunez. “[With Ace], I’m part of something bigger than the diocese,” she said, adding that late nights sharing ideas and brainstorming, building relationships around shared interests, was a highlight of the conference.

“Marianela is really good with networking,” said Steve Hogan, principal at Saint Mary School in Vineland. Hogan attended the ACE conference at Notre Dame and saw Nunez in action.

“She has developed relationships with her counterparts in other dioceses, and they all share best practices,” he said. “She picked up things she wants to do in our diocese. She [also] introduced me to a lot of people who can be a good resource for me.”

Hogan said Nunez was full of ideas and eager to run them by him. “She truly has a very clear focus and vision,” he said.

Watson: An ACE faculty member

Nunez and Watson nearly crossed in the skies as Watson made his way to South Bend in mid-July. He is an adjunct, national faculty member in the Mary Ann Remick Leadership Program at the University of Notre Dame — a designation reserved for few, according to Academic Program Director Melodie Wyttenbach, Ph.D.

The Remick program is part of Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education, and it’s designed specifically for emerging leaders in Catholic education. The program spans three summers (on-site) and two academic school years, with graduates earning a Master of Arts in Educational Leadership.

“Bill is an awesome team member and contributor … so stellar we asked him to be a lead [instructor] and he said yes,” said Wyttenbach, noting that Watson’s role as a lead is an exception for adjunct faculty. In addition to spending time at Notre Dame each summer, she said, Watson is available and accessible throughout the school year to cohort members, who are referred to as leaders, not students.

Watson facilitates and instructs the year-long internship experience of 11 leaders, helping them apply concepts and practices from coursework to their “real world” schools and positions. He said he learns as much as they do.

“The Remick Leadership Program brings together people at the top of their game from Catholic schools throughout country. I learn so much to bring back to what we do in our schools,” said Watson. In exchange, he brings real-life experience to the classroom.

“I understand what it’s like to be in the real world of Catholic schools,” he said. “When [leaders] are on the Notre Dame campus in the summer, they have this intensive experience, 9-5 and beyond, every day, generating excitement — and planning — for all that Catholic schools can and should be. There is so much energy and hope. When they get back to their schools, it can be tough to begin the process of putting those plans into action, bit by bit.

“We do that work every day in the Office of Catholic Schools. I think the leaders appreciate knowing that I’m right in there with them.”

Watson is right in there with faculty and administrators at South Jersey Catholic Schools as well. Since he joined the Camden Diocese in 2013, he has led groups of teachers to redesign the science, math, English language arts and, this summer, social studies curricula for grades K-12. Fifty or more teachers have participated in each subject area. Many of those teachers have attended ACE programs at Notre Dame in the curriculum redesign process.

Working in the Office of Catholic Schools is a year-round vocation. Passionate about Catholic education and invigorated by their summer experiences, Nunez and Watson continue to support the mission of South Jersey Catholic Schools: to educate and inspire young minds spiritually, academically and in service to others.