December 16, 2011

Retiring superintendent’s legacy includes improving schools

During his 10 years as the superintendent of Catholic schools in the archdiocese, Ron Costello has stressed a combination of academic excellence and values-based education. Here, Costello, who will retire on Dec. 31, poses for a photo with four students at Holy Name of Jesus School in Beech Grove. They include Dolan Monroe, left, Brad Meade, Zach Taylor and Gabriel Lopez. The photo was taken at the school after a Dec. 7 ceremony honoring Benedictine Sister Mary Nicolette Etienne, a religion teacher. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

During his 10 years as the superintendent of Catholic schools in the archdiocese, Ron Costello has stressed a combination of academic excellence and values-based education. Here, Costello, who will retire on Dec. 31, poses for a photo with four students at Holy Name of Jesus School in Beech Grove. They include Dolan Monroe, left, Brad Meade, Zach Taylor and Gabriel Lopez. The photo was taken at the school after a Dec. 7 ceremony honoring Benedictine Sister Mary Nicolette Etienne, a religion teacher. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

By John Shaughnessy

The questions are ones that coaches, teachers and others consider when they near the end of a major part of their lives—questions that Ron Costello has thought about as he prepares to retire on Dec. 31 as the superintendent of Catholic schools for the archdiocese.

What will I be remembered for? Did I make a difference?

“It’s something you think about after 43 years in education,” Costello says as he sits in his office. “You wonder, ‘What is your legacy?’ Yet, the more I think about it, that really isn’t the issue. The real issue is whether you’re getting better or worse as a school system.”

The evidence indicates that Catholic schools in the archdiocese have improved significantly during Costello’s 10 years of leadership:

More than 97 percent of Catholic high school students in the archdiocese graduate and enter college.

Twenty of the 68 Catholic schools in the archdiocese have received national recognition as a Blue Ribbon School of Excellence by the U.S. Department of Education.

Catholic schools are more affordable for more lower-income families through the Indiana voucher program that became law on July 1.

“His 10-year tenure turned our schools around,” says Annette “Mickey” Lentz, the chancellor of the archdiocese and the former executive director of the office of Catholic education and faith formation. “Our schools are where they are today due to his leadership, calm witness and patience. I could always count on him in so many ways.”

Then there is the personal legacy of Costello, a U.S. Marines veteran of the Vietnam War and a soft-spoken man who is known by his staff for his caring while leading a school system of more than 22,000 students—the third largest school system in Indiana.

“For nine years, I’ve worked with him and for him,” says Brenda Pfarr, executive assistant for the archdiocesan office of Catholic education. “For every evening meeting during that time, he has never failed to help me clean up and put things away. Then he would walk me to my car. Not everyone will do that for you.”

Costello’s emphasis on an education driven by achievement and a life marked by values led him to the archdiocese in 2001 after 33 years as a teacher, counselor, assistant principal and assistant superintendent in public schools.

His arrival came at a time when Lilly Endowment Inc. provided $10 million to the archdiocese to focus on school improvements, including student performance and professional development of staff members.

“It was the first time I ever got a check for $10 million,” Costello says with a laugh.

The archdiocese raised another $8 million for the effort, which helped to lead to the Blue Ribbon School of Excellence awards and increased student scores on standardized tests—success that drew national attention.

“He made us a leader across the nation in all education, not just Catholic education,” says Kathy Mears, assistant superintendent of Catholic schools in the areas of curriculum and learning resources. “We were using student achievement data to make decisions well ahead of anyone else. As a result, our student achievement has grown dramatically.”

Still, Costello kept insisting there was room for continued improvement, colleagues say.

“Ron never seems to be completely happy with high student achievement data,” says Harry Plummer, executive director of the office of Catholic education. “He is always pushing for measuring how student achievement can be made even higher, and working with schools to develop the learning strategies necessary to make this happen. He has had a very positive influence on our schools.”

Even as Costello nears retirement, he is still aware of the main challenges for Catholic schools in the future—to keep building on their academic success, to continue to maintain their Catholic identity, and to help make Catholic education more affordable for families through an emphasis on finances, development and enrollment.

“Our biggest struggle is how we can continue to make our schools more affordable for kids,” says the father of four grown children who all attended St. Lawrence School and Bishop Chatard High School, both in Indianapolis. “The biggest difference is the voucher system. It’s foreseeable that half of our kids could benefit from the voucher system in the future. Our enrollment grew 612 students this year. That’s not happening anywhere in the country.”

Still, Costello insists that the Church and parishes have to continue to make a financial commitment to Catholic schools—especially in the areas of technology and facilities—to keep them competitive and successful.

“My wife, Cindy, taught in Catholic schools. Our kids went to Catholic schools,” Costello says. “We know from the values perspective how important Catholic schools are. Catholic schools not only do a wonderful job in terms of religious education, we also do a wonderful job of teaching academics. Our kids perform exceedingly well in reading, writing, math and science. We prepare them well for high school and college, which prepares them for life.”

Costello is proud to be part of that legacy of Catholic schools. His colleagues are proud of the contributions he has made as an educator and as a person.

“When I think of the contribution that Ron Costello has made to education in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, I’m reminded that Ron served his country in Vietnam, served his family as a faithful husband and father, and served his faith as a leader in Catholic education,” says Rob Rash, assistant superintendent of Catholic schools in the areas of administrative school personnel and licensure. “He’s a real stand-up guy.” †

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