Tech-savvy and a skilled fundraiser, Jae Kim is exactly the type of leader the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles wants for its schools.
Last July, Kim became the first person other than a nun to be principal of St. John Chrysostom School in Inglewood. He's outfitted the 85-year-old school with Wi-Fi, developed a financial plan that includes a rainy day fund and instructed teachers to post grades online.
Kim is part of a new generation of leaders whom the archdiocese is grooming. They're being cultivated at a critical time for a Church eager to attract and hold onto the next generation.
After three decades of declining enrollment, Catholic elementary schools in Los Angeles are heartened by two straight years of growth. But archdiocese policymakers say stronger leadership and innovation are needed to keep the momentum going and to position its schools as attractive and affordable alternatives to other educational options.
"We have a vision that we can grow as other archdioceses around the country close their schools," said elementary schools superintendent Kevin Baxter. "That potential for growth rests on two pillars: leadership and stewardship and then innovation in the classroom."
While Kim's already fulfilling that charge, the district's ongoing challenge will be to produce more leaders like him. The archdiocese recently revised its leadership formation program to emphasize Baxter's two pillars.
Earlier this month, about 115 teachers recommended for bigger roles gathered to discuss how they could start assuming more responsibilities. They'll continue to meet in the coming months at forums with campus administrators such as Kim who have expertise in different subjects, from technology to finance.
Learning to make websites
At Kim's school, fifth graders learn more about making websites than most current college seniors know. Baxter said emerging leaders are being told that children need to be engaged at school in the same way they engage with the outside world.
"We can't educate them in a fifth-century classroom," he said. "Technology is a tool, not some fancy, flashy thing."
The financial challenge at every school is often vastly different. One common thread, though, is that the growth Baxter speaks of is largely a product of more Latino students, a community with a greater likelihood of needing scholarships to enroll at Catholic schools. Funding those scholarships isn't easy, but it can be done, Baxter said. He wants schools to rely on development more than fundraising, meaning that schools hold golf tournaments and walkathons to attract alumni rather than bake sales and car washes to earn pennies.
"The job of a principal is already time-demanding enough without adding in the marketing and PR, but they can enlist the help of parents and alumni to produce a more mature development program," Baxter said.
Graduate studies programs such as Partners in Los Angeles Catholic Education at Loyola Marymount University have been key in developing leaders.
Barbara Curtis, a regional outreach coordinator for the archdiocese and a principal at St. Raphael School, has worked with a handful of alumni from the program. She called them bearers of compassion who raise the standards at the schools where they work because care for students is so central to their education. With the help of a PLACE alum, Curtis added digital whiteboards and upgraded her school's Internet service.
Natural candidates for leadership
At Kim's school, "PLACErs" hold down the second, third and fourth-grade classrooms. He said he's worked with 10 in total, all of whom are natural candidates for leadership spots because of their energy and willingness to go the extra mile.
"I wouldn't mind a school full of PLACE people," he said.
Of the 254 people admitted to PLACE in its 13 years, 10 have become principals. The program's tough entry requirements attract high-quality students.
"You have to go through a whole lot more hoops than just applying to any other graduate program," said program director Diana Murphy.
Despite a weak market for teachers, Murphy and Kim said graduates of PLACE and its sister programs elsewhere in the country are always in demand.
"What we're doing is giving a little bit of a boost to the faculty of the schools," Murphy said. "Some look to at us like a placement agency for teachers, but we're more like an incubator for developing leaders in Catholic education."
At St. John Chrysostom School, a small wooden crucifix hangs above white boards in classrooms. A Virgin Mary statue sits perched on a ledge in one corner. And a large LCD screen serves as a reminder of the primacy of digital technology in a '60s-era building.
Kim still wants to build a gym, put a laptop on the desk of every student and invest in a high-speed Internet connection. He also said he would love to see enrollment rise from 270 students to 290 students next year. That'll take some more marketing in what amounts to an unstable environment. The K-8 school receives no subsidy from the Archdiocese, and basic cost increases push tuition up about $100 each year. Last year's cost was $3,800.
As Kim sorts through his goals, the teachers he's eyeing as potential leaders will be right next to him for now, learning a few lessons about flexibility and problem-solving along the way.
"I'd love to keep them," Kim said. "I can't be selfish though."
This story is one in an occasional series of reports by students taking part in a class of the USC Annenberg Knight Program on Media and Religion, headed by Diane Winston. Thanks to a grant from the Luce Foundation, Annenberg students have covered global religion, culture and politics for the past four years. This year's journalism class is headed to Ireland and Northern Ireland for 10 days in March and, in preparation, its students are covering Los Angeles' Catholic communities. The nine students are a mix of undergraduates, second year grad students and mid-career professionals.