The Albany Diocese's 23 Catholic schools are implementing additions to the state's Common Core education standards, which the Catholic Schools Office elected to adopt when the Board of Regents approved them in 2011.

Despite debates in the public square and within the Church, the Diocese's superintendent of schools said that teachers, principals and parents in Catholic schools are supportive of and excited by the new standards.

"They're addressing the needs of all learners by making them much more comprehensive and based on the needs of today's students," said Michael Pizzingrillo. "We take what's good and we use it, but we also teach our own curriculum."

Catholic schools different
Mr. Pizzingrillo said much of the debate involves semantic confusion between standards and curriculum. Diocesan schools are not required to adopt curriculum modules the state has offered.

Moreover, Catholic schools are not affected by the performance-based teacher assessments - which critics say unfairly judge a teacher's merit on students' grasp of the standards - being used in public schools.

"It's a convoluted subject," the superintendent said. "Curriculum is everything you say and do from the moment [students] walk into the schools until the moment they leave.

"How we are approaching the standards, I think, surpasses government schools," he continued. "We educate the whole child. Most schools can't say that."

Mr. Pizzingrillo and Catholic school principals said the standards, which have affected math and English Language Arts curriculum, are giving educators the opportunity to teach in a more cross-curricular way, do more thematic planning and dive deeper into subjects.

It's no longer about rote memorization of sums, but why two plus two equals four and "how does it apply to the living world?" said Jennifer Chatain, principal of St. Kateri Tekakwitha School in Schenectady.

"I was really blown away by the expectations," she said. "but I think the kids have really taken hold.

Be positive
"You have to have a positive attitude about the changes," she continued. "Any time we look to raise our standards and help our children achieve more, parents are for it. The end result is, do we pass on good citizens when they leave us?"

The Diocese has provided new curriculum maps for math, religion and Spanish and will work on ELA next. It is revising report cards to reflect understanding of concepts as well as grades, and encouraging schools to structure tests differently.

The Diocese may reevaluate its participation in state tests or add tests that compare test-takers to one another. Currently, teachers are evaluated for promoting Catholic identity, planning, classroom management, curriculum instruction and professionalism.

Diocesan schoolchildren did "extremely well" across grade levels against public schoolchildren in ELA last year, Mr. Pizzingrillo said. Math needs some improvement. The Diocese is directing resources toward professional growth for teachers and principals and advising principals to overhaul instruction materials.

St. Kateri's started making changes three years ago; Ms. Chatain did a session for math teachers and also sends teachers to development days. The school has launched new reading and math programs.

"It's going to be a long process," Ms. Chatain said.

Mater Christi School in Albany uses substitute teachers to allow full-timers the opportunity to study with leaders from a statewide Catholic school organization and do other development. Teachers there are using a mix of state-recommended curriculum and their own creations.

Principals in favor
The standards are "engaging [and] challenging," said Theresa Ewell, principal. "It's giving teachers and the kids time to absorb concepts."

Giovanni Virgiglio, principal of St. Mary's Institute in Amsterdam, added that students are forming their own conclusions and learning to justify things.

"We don't want them to just be vessels of information," he said. The change "gives teachers an opportunity to unearth something with their students. For so long, it was almost spoon-fed."

St. Mary's Institute started working during the 2011-12 year to create a balance between fiction and non-fiction texts, taking advantage of teacher webinars and resources from the National Catholic Educational Association, and the Catholic School Administrators Association of New York State.

When parents question the negative things they hear about Common Core in the media, Mr. Virgiglio said, "I start my conversations off with, 'In Catholic schools, we get to have our cake and eat it, too.'

"When done right and when incorporated in a way that's student-centered," he continued, "It's hard to argue with the benefit of these standards."

Mr. Pizzingrillo agreed and said the standards will not make Catholic schools "common." Instead, the standards "are brought to an even higher level in our schools" because of the additional faith formation dimension.

When students look at texts through a Catholic lens and discuss Church teaching, he argued, it increases comprehension and analytical skills.

Bishop's view
Bishop Howard J. Hubbard will also come down in favor of the standards with a column in the Feb. 6 issue of The Evangelist.

"While our Catholic schools will adopt and meet the Common Core standards," Bishop Hubbard writes, "they will not lose either their Catholic identity or become so drive by standardized assessments that they leave out the uniqueness that is a part of every child and an integrally important dimension of a well-rounded education."