Choosing between public and private education for your child can be one of the hardest decisions a parent has to make. But for Dr. Donna Hargens, the new superintendent of Catholic Schools for the Archdiocese of Baltimore, it’s an investment worth making.
“Education changes the trajectory of a life,” Hargens said. “I always say that education is the best improvement strategy. If you’re going to invest in anything, invest in education because education is going to last for a lifetime.”
Hargens brings about four decades of education experience with her to Baltimore. Most recently she served as the superintendent of Jefferson County Public Schools in Louisville, Kentucky. She also served as the chief academic officer and also interim superintendent for Wake County Public Schools in North Carolina.
Hargens said her faith, family and being able to do the purposeful work that’s she spent her life doing drew her to Baltimore. She is a product of Catholic education, and her children went to Catholic schools. With family less than an hour’s drive away in Virginia and an hour flight away in North Carolina, it was a good fit.
The history of Baltimore in the Catholic Church was a draw, too.
The Archdiocese of Baltimore was established as a diocese on Nov. 6, 1789, making it the first in the United States. In 1810, Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton opened a school for girls in Baltimore that many look at as the foundation for the Catholic school system. In 1829, Mother Mary Lange founded the first Catholic school for girls of color.
“The history of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, in terms of being the first diocese in the United States and being where, really, Catholic education began,” Hargens said, “that is not lost on someone who is a Catholic.”
The Archdiocese of Baltimore has seen some struggles in recent years as it has closed 16 schools and merged two others since 2010. But plans are in the works to open a new K-8 school in Baltimore city, possibly for the 2020-21 school year. That puts Hargens in the middle of an exciting time for the Catholic education system in the region.
One of Hargens’ focuses in her first year is getting the message out about Catholic education. She said the focus for the 2018-19 school year is on the “Year of Service,” and it will provide ways for schools and students to demonstrate what Catholic education is about and for doing good works.
When she met a father at a meet-and-greet recently, he spoke to her about how he was excited that the skills learned in Catholic schools were what employers were looking for in employees.
“The sense of teamwork and compassion and the ability to get along with others and self-discipline,” Hargens said, “all of those things that a Catholic education equips students with … are things that employers want in their workforce.”
In her experience as an educator, Hargens has seen technology expand and become a larger part of the tools available for teachers and students. She credits James Sellinger, chancellor of education for the archdiocese, for helping to build an infrastructure that can support expanding technology.
“You can really bring the world into a classroom through the use of technology,” Hargens said. “The other thing technology does is individualizes. It will never replace a teacher, but what it can do is be a tool for a teacher to help individualize learning.”
Hargens said she sees things like makerspaces, places where students can get hands-on learning with different types of materials and technology, in more and more schools. Technology has also helped improve communication between parents and the school.
Hargens said there is a team that helps train teachers and shows them the different resources available through the technology. There are a variety of aligned resources that teachers and students can use to help with learning. Even when students may have to miss school, there are ways they can still be engaged or continue to learn through technology.
In addition to her time in school administration, Hargens also served as a high school Spanish and English teacher as well as a principal and assistant principal. She has a strong commitment to working to make sure the teachers have what they need to help each student.
“That’s the art of teaching,” Hargens said. “You have to have enough in your tool belt … to be able to provide somebody with more around an area or to provide enrichment.”