Dr. Mary McDonald, who rejuvenated the once-foundering Memphis Catholic school system by reopening eight inner city Jubilee Schools, is ending her 14-year tenure as superintendent.
“I am always telling our students to have a vision of what they will do next and prepare for it,” McDonald said Thursday.
“It is time for me, once again, to practice what I preach. I am hard-wired for challenge and creative problem-solving, and as much as I love our school community, I am energized by new visions, and by continuing my journey in the service of lifting and empowering others.”
McDonald, 67, will be leaving her position June 30. Her successor has not been named. She plans to continue her service to the Church and its schools as a national education consultant and Catholic schools advocate.
“Dr. McDonald’s works in Catholic education, particularly with the Jubilee Schools, will be remembered in the annals of history,” said Bishop J. Terry Steib, who announced her resignation Thursday morning. “Her legacy will continue to be the framework from which the Diocesan vision for Catholic education will continue in the future.”
Steib said he is weighing whether to develop a search committee for McDonald’s successor or draw from current staff — as he did when he appointed McDonald in 1998.
McDonald, 67, has served the Catholic Diocese of Memphis for 35 years as a teacher at Holy Rosary, a teacher and principal at St. Agnes Academy, and a principal at St. Benedict at Auburndale in Cordova, and as superintendent since 1998.
When she became superintendent, the Memphis Catholic school system was in decline.
In the mid-1960s, the Catholic Diocese of Memphis operated the state’s 10th-largest school district with 11,000 students in two dozen schools. But by the late 1990s, there were half as many students in 16 schools — and five were a year from closing.
“During my first meeting with the Bishop, he handed me an outline of what he wanted me to do,” McDonald said.
“He said we should be in places that we are not, and that Catholic schools should not be for only those who could afford them. We talked about what that might mean, and I took my marching orders from that conversation. He also said we did not have any money.”
About a year later, McDonald attended a Papal Mass in Rome. After the Mass, she met Pope John Paul II, gave him a yellow Memphis Catholic Schools T-shirt, and asked him to pray for the schools. He said he would.
One month later, McDonald got a phone call from two local businessmen, both Protestants. They told her they wanted to help the diocese revive Catholic education in inner-city Memphis. Their multimillion-dollar donation, given anonymously, has allowed the diocese to reopen eight inner-city schools.
McDonald thought about calling them Resurrection Schools. Steib suggested the name Jubilee Schools.
The first Jubilee School, St. Augustine, reopened in July 1999 with 26 Kindergarten students. Since the donors’ initial $12 million contribution ($2 million for each of the original six reopened schools), individual, corporate and nonprofit donors have given $60 million to support Jubilee Schools. That includes large grants from the Assisi Foundation, the Hyde Foundation and the Poplar Foundation.
The Jubilee Schools now operate on a $30 million endowment, serving more than 1,400 mostly non-Catholic and poor students at eight schools (fundraising allowed the addition of two more). Unlike most private, faith-based schools, these schools accept any students, regardless of test scores, previous academic or behavior records, or a family’s ability to pay.
By October 2007, the Catholic Schools Office was accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools as a School District, one of only two dioceses in the country to receive this status.
Today, there are 29 Catholic schools in Memphis with 8,275 students, the system’s highest enrollment since 1976.
“What Mary McDonald has accomplished there in Memphis has been extraordinary,” said Dr. Karen Ristau, president of the National Catholic Education Association. “Memphis has become a model or inspiration for Catholic schools in other parts of the country.”
McDonald, who delivered a keynote address at the NCEA’s 2012 convention in April, is the author of several books, including “A Practitioner’s Guide to Catholic School Leadership.”
In addition to consulting with Catholic schools across the country, she plans to continue writing, speaking and offering retreats for educators.
McDonald suffered a stroke in 2005, and nearly died a few months later when a device implanted to repair her heart malfunctioned and perforated her aorta. But she says she has fully recovered.
“I am fine,” she said Thursday. “In fact my good health is a factor in my decision. I believe I have been fully restored to health, twice, to show me that I have more to do. I don’t want to waste a day, and I want to spend my days encouraging and lifting others.”