New superintendent of schools likes what he sees in archdiocese

Michael Ashton likes what he sees in the Archdiocese of Omaha’s approach to Catholic education.

That approach includes tuition grants, outreach to Latino families, efforts to close distance gaps with technology-driven distance learning and strong marketing. And those initiatives track well with his own thoughts about lowering barriers to a Christ-centered education, he said.

It’s "about widening the doors of Catholic education," said Ashton, superintendent since July 5 of the archdiocese’s 53 Catholic elementary and 17 high schools.

Ashton said he plans to visit each of those schools by Thanksgiving – and has at least 49 visits scheduled so far.

One visit took place Aug. 18 at an all-school Mass with Archbishop George J. Lucas at St. Vincent de Paul School in Omaha, which opened the school’s celebration of its 25th anniversary.

"It was great," said Barb Marchese, principal, about the Mass, a flag raising ceremony, and later discussing school issues with Ashton, the archbishop and Father Daniel Kampschneider, pastor. "He (Ashton) was very, very interested in the school … and in Catholic education in general."

Ashton said those events and discussions were wonderful.

"Barb has an amazing school community and identity there that’s neat to see," he said.

Ashton said he’s excited about meeting students, families, teachers and administrators across the archdiocese.

"That’s an indulgence on my part," he said. "That’s a lot of fun."

Most recently principal of a Catholic elementary school in Chapel Hill, N.C., Ashton said through the challenges and opportunities of that experience, he developed an interest in the bigger picture and broader view of Catholic education. Ashton also has taught science and been an assistant principal in public secondary and elementary schools in Pennsylvania, and served in a variety of Catholic ministries, including religious education, the Knights of Columbus and mentoring engaged couples.

Ashton said he is enthused about finding ways schools can help enact the archdiocese’s pastoral vision and priority plan, summed up in the phrase, "One church: encountering Jesus, equipping disciples, living mercy."

Ways to live out the vision include teachers in the archdiocesan-backed School of Faith formation program, students encouraged to think about God’s work in the world, and service projects helping students, teachers and staff show mercy to others, Ashton said. Having Archbishop Lucas, pastors, principals and teachers all share the same broad message also will advance the vision, he said.

"That’s how a vision is really, powerfully, sustained," Ashton said.

Another aspect of living mercy also should be shared: God’s love for everyone, and in a school setting, that can be stressed with students in particular, he said.

Eucharistic adoration and other avenues are being used in schools to provide space for students to feel God’s grace, he said.

"It’s not just giving mercy, but receiving it," Ashton said. "Teenagers often do not feel loved, heard, respected. Receiving God’s mercy means knowing you are loved by God."

Many of the archdiocesan initiatives – including School of Faith, technology upgrades and a marketing campaign – began about four years ago as part of a $52 million Ignite the Faith capital campaign that also boosted the priests’ retirement and seminary funds and religious education in parishes.

Part of his role will be showing supporters the positive impact Ignite the Faith has had, and urging continued support for Catholic schools in the archdiocese, Ashton said.

That will help continue the initiatives "in a robust way," he said.

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