Patrick Slattery followed Principal Trish Wallinger through Sts. Peter and Paul School, jotting down details of upgrades completed, underway or planned at the Catholic grade school near 36th and X Streets.
The recent stop was just one of many that Slattery, the Archdiocese of Omaha's new superintendent of schools, has made since his appointment in March.
Officially on the job since July 1, Slattery, 40, has visited roughly half the archdiocese's 70 schools, including all but three in the rural portion of the archdiocese, which encompasses 23 counties in northeast Nebraska.
His recent visits have focused on the five South Omaha schools, including Sts. Peter and Paul, that make up the archdiocese's new school consortium.
The consortium, with a common governing board and director, is part of a plan aimed at strengthening Catholic schools and parishes in eastern Omaha. Three schools were closed last spring as part of the restructuring.
Now well into his course of self-assigned homework, Slattery believes the archdiocese's school system has the talent and the dedication to become a national model.
“Is it a lofty goal? Absolutely. But why not strive for something like that?” he said.
Getting there, he said, will take a lot of work by a lot of people. But Slattery has a record of helping schools along. Archdiocesan officials describe him as a proven collaborator.
He spent the past nine years at west Omaha's Skutt High School — first as principal, then as principal and president, and then as president after the job was split in 2012. Last fall the U.S. Department of Education named Skutt one of 314 National Blue Ribbon Schools for 2012.
“He really understands schools. He understands people,” said Scott Drvol, chairman of Skutt's board and father of three Skutt graduates.
“I think what defines him is: Status quo isn't a goal. It's always 'Improve ourselves and our school and our systems.' And he does a really fabulous job in those areas,” Drvol said.
The Rev. James Gilg, Slattery's predecessor, said Slattery will help take the archdiocese's school system to new levels.
“I have ultimate confidence in him,” said Gilg, now executive director of the new Omaha Catholic Schools Consortium.
To get started, Slattery is working from a much-annotated copy of the archdiocese's strategic vision for Catholic education.
Under the plan, for which more than 3,000 people provided input, schools will retain autonomy, but the Catholic Schools Office that Slattery heads will provide greater support. The office will help schools build Catholic identity, move to higher levels of accreditation, update curriculum and technology, and improve fundraising.
The next step, Slattery said, will be to complete a strategic plan for his office and to ensure that all 70 schools have their own plans.
Among the areas on which Slattery will focus:
» Increasing Hispanic enrollment.
The archdiocese plans to increase outreach by making Sts. Peter and Paul more welcoming to Latino families. Wallinger has hired a full-time Spanish teacher. In addition, four teachers and three Latina staff members will join the staff from the now-closed Assumption-Guadalupe School, which had a largely Latino enrollment.
Slattery has been in touch with the Archdiocese of Boston, which boosted Hispanic enrollment there, in hopes of replicating its methods.
» Increasing the use of data, both for individual schools and the superintendent's office.
“Our Catholic schools are very strong on all fronts,” said Slattery, who majored in math as an undergraduate, “but I also think it's important that we validate that to the general public with data.”
At Skutt, he said, math teachers looked at test scores, identified a couple of areas in which students missed the concepts, and stepped up instruction in those areas. ACT scores rose, he said.
He'd like to see such data from his office so he can pinpoint successful approaches and share them with all schools.
“We're not trying to take away the independence of our schools,” he said. “It's balancing that independence ... with using data to make us stronger.”
» Developing leadership.
Slattery has talked with Creighton University officials about creating an academy, outside its degree programs, for staff members with leadership potential. Slattery himself got an early start in school administration, at age 27.
“I see that ability in some of our young teachers,” he said. “It's tapping them on the shoulder and getting them working on this process.”
He also wants to create other partnerships with area colleges and universities.
» Boosting marketing and fundraising.
Slattery and other officials will develop marketing plans for the schools, tied to a $40 million capital campaign that the archdiocese is launching. About $23 million of the total amount would go to Catholic education.
Wallinger, the Sts. Peter and Paul principal, already is looking forward to working with Slattery — again. Her 28 years as a teacher at St. Matthew School in Bellevue included two years when Slattery was principal.
“He's very innovative and creative,” Wallinger said. “He's a wonderful administrator.”