Following an extensive, nationwide search, Bishop Thomas J. Tobin has appointed Dr. James Power as Superintendent of Catholic Schools for the Diocese of Providence. The Superintendent of Catholic Schools serves as leader of the 36 Catholic primary and secondary schools across Rhode Island. Since 2020, Dr. Power has been Headmaster at St. Anselm’s Abbey School in Washington D.C. and Head of School at several other Catholic schools prior to that, including Culver Academies (Culver, Ind.), Upper Canada College (Toronto, Ont.), and Georgetown Preparatory School (North Bethesda, Md.).
In an interview with Rhode Island Catholic, we get to know a little more about the educational philosophy of Dr. Power.
HOW DO YOU THINK YOUR BACKGROUND IN CATHOLIC EDUCATION HAS HELPED PREPARE YOU FOR YOUR CURRENT POSITION?
I am lucky. I’ve had a chance to work in a variety of Catholic schools; I’ve taught in elementary, middle and high schools, and in parish, diocesan, and Catholic independent schools. I’ve also had a chance to learn from the Immaculate Heart of Mary, Notre Dame and Sacred Heart sisters as well as Benedictine monks and Jesuit priests.
Along the way I’ve learned that while there is no one blueprint that will work equally well in every institution, really good schools share a few key things in common: They have a clearly defined and deeply understood mission. These schools are championed by collegial leaders with high expectations who create a culture that encourages others to do everything they can to make that mission a reality. And at its bedrock, these schools are blessed with faculty members who have a strong vocational sense: they see their work as a form of ministry.
WHAT IS YOUR GENERAL APPROACH OR PHILOSOPHY OF EDUCATION?
The Jesuits use an expression, “cura personalis,” a term that emphasizes that we aren’t just teaching students in general; we are caring for individual souls. When students sense that a teacher cares for them, they tend to respond in a positive way.
WHAT ARE YOUR GOALS FOR THE UPCOMING SCHOOL YEAR?
This is a time for listening and learning for me. It can be dangerous to make changes when you don’t understand a school’s context. My biggest challenge will be restraining my natural impulse to jump to quick and easy solutions.
WHAT IS YOUR VIEW ON THE GENERAL STATE OF CATHOLIC EDUCATION?
I am an optimist when it comes to the future of Catholic education. Of course, we have our challenges, especially when it comes to the business side of schools. While the number of schools and students has dropped since the days of Bishop McVinney, I think more and more people are seeing the value of Catholic education. That’s why it’s important for us to be authentically Catholic, while also emphasizing how important it is for us to meet students where they are, to care for them, to help them become the men and women God wants them to be.
The start of this school year reminds me of the opening line from “A Tale of Two Cities” — about this being the best and worst of times. There are so many good things going on in Catholic schools, starting with the realization that we are blessed with extraordinarily dedicated professionals who are dedicated to helping their students. That said, I’d be naïve if I didn’t acknowledge that we are facing serious challenges. Our tuition-based model is putting a serious strain on everyone, and as a result, enrollment remains a real challenge for many schools.
HOW HAS YOUR TIME IN YOUR FORMER TEACHING/ADMINISTRATIVE POSITIONS INFLUENCED YOUR OUTLOOK ON CATHOLIC EDUCATION?
My time in secular schools has only deepened my appreciation for Catholic schools. When we are at our best Catholic schools are intentionally counter-cultural. They stand for something. It’s hard to put into words but Catholic schools provide a deeper, broader context for life and in particular, for suffering.
Let me give you just one example. I was the head of a secular school when a young alumnus lost his life. We were at a loss. My first instinct was to gather everyone together for a prayer. But because praying was not an option, I was left mouthing platitudes like, “Let’s keep the deceased in our thoughts today.” The words felt less than hollow. I could see the looks in the students’ eyes. I could imagine them thinking, “Is that it? Is that all you’ve got?” It was one of those moments when you could almost hear Peggy Lee‘s “Is That All There Is?” playing along as the soundtrack.
WHAT STRUGGLES DO CATHOLIC SCHOOLS FACE IN THE AFTERMATH OF THE COVID PANDEMIC?
The last 2+ years have taken a toll on everyone. My sense is that parents, students, teachers, and administrators want us all to get back to “business as usual” as much as possible. If nothing else, the past 30 months has shown us how much we value community. Those “thought leaders” who said that schools will eventually disappear altogether, and that kids will become self-contained on-line learners may be going through a massive rethink. In general, the Zoom classes were an honest effort to bridge a gap during a time of uncertainty, but I think most of us who watched what happened now realize how inadequate that form of instruction is, especially for our younger students.
WHAT ARE YOUR VIEWS ON THE ROLE OF CATHOLIC SCHOOLS IN THE NEW EVANGELIZATION?
We have an amazing opportunity for this kind of work, and schools can play a key role. While the student is the primary focus in the classroom, Catholic schools, and I’d say especially elementary schools, have an opportunity to support parents as the primary teachers of the faith.
There was an article in a recent edition of “The New York Times” about the suddenly renewed interest in Catholicism in the Big Apple. A lot of young professionals are reconnecting with the Church. I sense that a lot of us are realizing that the excessive fast-paced materialism of our age in the end leaves us feeling empty. My college chaplain used to remind us that, “Life is more than a celebration of nerve endings.” I think he was right.