New Florida Catholic schools superintendent: ‘I strive to always operate out of a mindset of hope’

The Archdiocese of Miami, home to more than half a million Catholics in three South Florida counties, encompasses 109 parishes and missions and 62 schools.

“It will be wonderful to work in a state that understands the value of school choice and enables families of all backgrounds to pick the best school for their child.” — Jim Rigg 

Jim Rigg

The Archdiocese of Miami is getting a new cabinet secretary of education and superintendent of schools.

Jim Rigg comes to Miami from the Archdiocese of Chicago, where he served for the past six years as superintendent of schools. Previously, Rigg served as director of education and superintendent of schools in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, overseeing the Office of Catechesis as well as Office of Schools.

In his new position, Rigg will head a veteran leadership team as he guides 57 Catholic schools, including a virtual school, across the archdiocese, which encompasses Broward, Miami-Dade and Monroe counties. He brings a rich background beyond his superintendencies, having served Catholic schools in Tennessee and Colorado as a teacher, dean, principal, assistant superintendent, and college-seminary lecturer.

Rigg received a Bachelor of Arts degree in history from College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. He holds a Master of Education from the University of Notre Dame and received his Ph.D. in educational administration from Capella University in Minneapolis. He is married and has four children.

redefinED interviewed Rigg to learn more about his thoughts on the importance of education choice, his role models, and his vision for Catholic schools in south Florida. Answers have been edited for clarity.

Q. What attracted you to the position in Florida?

A. While I have sincerely enjoyed my experiences in the Archdiocese of Chicago, I was attracted to the Archdiocese of Miami for several reasons. First, the archdiocese strikes me as a great place for Catholic education. The schools are strong and successful and staffed by men and women of great dedication and talent. Miami has a national reputation for excellence and vibrancy, and it is exciting to become a part of this success. I also know that Archbishop (Thomas) Wenski and other archdiocesan leaders are very supportive of Catholic education, and this is major advantage.

Not only are the Catholic schools of the Archdiocese of Miami delivering a strong education, but they are doing a great job of embracing and teaching our Catholic faith. Our schools exist to make Christ known, loved, and served. The Catholic schools of the Archdiocese of Miami understand this mission and work hard to engage each student and family in the love of Christ.

I am sincerely looking forward to experiencing the great diversity of the Archdiocese of Miami. I’m told that Mass is offered in 17 languages, and schools and parishes rejoice in their local ethnicities.

The presence of an array of parental choice programs was another key factor that influenced my decision. It will be wonderful to work in a state that understands the value of school choice and enables families of all backgrounds to pick the best school for their child.

Finally, you can’t ignore that Florida is a great place to live. The quality of life in South Florida is unsurpassed. I believe Florida to be an ideal place to raise a family, and my wife and I are very happy to be relocating south. We have family in the area as well, and that is a major plus. I also love coffee, and I’m looking forward to many a cup of Café Cubano!

Q. Can you share your background in advocacy?  What have you accomplished in that regard and how do you intend to apply it to your new position in Florida?

A. I believe passionately that Catholic schools should be available and accessible to any family that wishes to attend. Finances represent an obstacle for many families to enroll in Catholic schools. All families, no matter their background, deserve the ability to choose the school that is best for them. State parental choice programs are critical to enabling this choice.

I have done my best to support advocacy for parental choice programs throughout my career. During my time as superintendent of Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, I supported the passage of a new needs-based voucher program as well as two state-funded scholarships for students with defined special needs. In Chicago, I helped advocate for the passage of the Invest in Kids Act, which established the first parental choice program, a state tax credit scholarship, in Illinois. These programs have helped thousands of families join and remain in Catholic schools.

While a superintendent’s job is very broad, I have felt it important to support advocacy for parental choice. Of course, such efforts happen alongside advocacy experts, such as those in the local Catholic conferences. Most importantly, I’ve worked to help the voices of each legislator’s constituents be heard. In my experience, nothing is more powerful than when a legislator hears from a parent or student within their district.

Of course, I’d be remiss if I did not mention the upcoming June 1 deadline for applications for Florida Tax Credit and Family Empowerment scholarships. All qualifying families should consider participating in this important program. We want to help you choose and remain in a Catholic school.

Q. News accounts say that more than 200 Catholic schools closed last year and that enrollments continue to decline. What can be done to turn those numbers around, especially as fewer people identify as Catholic, and the schools depend more on non-Catholic enrollment?

A. I strive to always operate out of a mindset of hope. While our schools have faced numerous challenges in recent years, I believe that the future is bright for Catholic education. Many of our schools are growing and thriving, and we have seen several exciting turnarounds in individual schools.

In my experience, many schools do not deeply understand their unique challenges and why some families may not be choosing them. The specific issues tend to vary school by school. A key part of my role as superintendent is helping each school realize its specific gifts and opportunities and helping equip the school with the perspective, knowledge, and resources to succeed.

For some schools, they may need to invest in new academic or faith formation programs. Other schools may need more of a focus on fundraising or expense control. Others may need support in marketing. I have found that there is no “silver bullet” for school improvement, but rather a suite of proven strategies that can be deployed depending upon each school’s specific situation.

Fundamental to this work is the quality of leadership at each school. I believe the principal is the most important factor in determining each school’s success or failure. I consider it a key duty of my role to identify, recruit, support, and develop school principals in their essential role.

It is impossible to ignore the disturbing faith engagement trends, particularly amongst the generation of parents who have children in our schools. These trends are fueled, in part, by several crises and scandals that have faced the Church in recent decades. I believe that Catholic schools can and should be in the forefront of the renewal of our Church. Our schools represent a massive opportunity to engage children and families deeply in our faith. If our schools can succeed in their educational and ministerial mission, I have no doubt that we will see a reversal of the trends impacting our Church. Our schools will also benefit wider society, as we graduate students who are ready to embody leadership and virtue as adults. 

Q. What are your immediate goals for the schools in the Archdiocese of Miami?

A. My priority will be to get to know the people and landscape of the Archdiocese of Miami. In my initial months, I plan to do a lot of listening and learning, and spend time studying the various forms of data for each school. I look forward to experiencing the great diversity represented by the schools of the Archdiocese. I have been incredibly impressed by the commitment and vibrancy of Catholic education in greater Miami, and it is important that I understand the unique strengths and challenges facing each school.

As superintendent, I see it as my role to help each school be successful, working in partnership with local pastors, principals, and other leaders. I would like to determine if there is a collective vision for Catholic education in the archdiocese. If so, I see my role as enabling each school to fully contribute to this vision. If not, I hope to work with Archbishop Wenski, school and parish leaders, and all school stakeholders to construct and realize such a vision.

Q. How have Catholic schools weathered the pandemic? Do you see any opportunities with the transition to post-pandemic life?

A. I see great opportunity for Catholic schools in the current COVID pandemic. While the past year has been incredibly challenging, I have been extremely impressed at how our Catholic schools have stepped up to serve students. We were able to move to virtual learning incredibly quickly when the pandemic began last spring. We’ve done an incredible job of supporting safe in-person learning this school year, even while instructing students learning from home. Our flexibility and resilience amidst the pandemic reflect our unwavering commitment to students and families. In the Archdiocese, I know many schools are experiencing an influx of new students because of this success.

Q. The archdiocese was the first in the nation to have a virtual school. How will you maximize its use?

A. I see the presence of a virtual school in the Archdiocese as a gift. Many families are not able to join traditional in-person classes for a variety of reasons, and a virtual school is a wonderful opportunity to engage these families. I see the virtual school as an important way of expanding the reach of Catholic education without offering direct competition with our brick-and-mortar schools.

If anything, the COVID pandemic has shown us that we need to be flexible in the education of our children and freely harness technology to support instruction. I’m sure that we can learn much from the approaches of the virtual school, assisting in-person classes with utilizing technology to support learners.

Q. How do you see fatherhood as benefiting you in your job?

A. One of the unique perspectives I bring to my new job is my role as a father of four current Catholic school students. This provides me with an understanding of the journey of our school parents. I have been so impressed by how my children have grown through their education, becoming young people of faith and conviction. My role as a parent has certainly deepened my appreciation for the value of our Catholic schools.

Q. Aside from famous people and your family, who were the biggest influences on your life?

A. I have certainly drawn influence from the many educators who have impacted my life. I can recall several teachers in my own upbringing who inspired me and influenced me to become a Catholic school educator. I’ve also seen many incredibly talented teachers and principals in my role as a superintendent, and these educators inspire me every day.

Of course, I’m also influenced by our students, who are the focus of our educational ministry. I’ve had a chance to hear directly from many students and families who offer touching expressions of how Catholic education has positively changed their lives.

Additionally, I am inspired by many religious figures, who connect deeply to my vocation of Catholic education. The Blessed Mother is a wonderful source of inspiration. St. Joseph provides an example of selfless giving to family. Educators such as St. Francis Xavier and St. John Bosco inspire me. One of my favorite saints is St. Bruno, who served as a Catholic school superintendent in France. Throughout his ministry, St. Bruno always remained focused directly on Christ, serving the Church with humility and compassion.

Q. Aside from the Bible, what are you reading right now and why?

A. I consider myself an avid reader and am usually working my way through several books. I’m currently re-reading “Founding Brothers” by Joseph Ellis, one of my favorite historical writers. I’m a huge fan of history, a subject I used to teach. The book provides an engaging humanized glimpse of several of the main historical figures of our nation’s founding.

I’m also reading “Antiquum ministerium”, the new Apostolic Letter by Pope Francis. This letter formally institutes the ministry of the catechist, which resonates with me as a Catholic educator. I see all Catholic school teachers as catechists, as they form the faith development of their students.

On a lighter note, I’m also reading “The Song of Troy” by Colleen McCullough, a historical account of the Battle of Troy. Colleen McCullough is one of my favorite historical novelists. I love feeling transported to another time and place by a talented writer.

Q. What do you enjoy most when you are not working?

A. One of my favorite activities is spending time with my family. Whether at home or out and about, I sincerely enjoy sharing the world with my wife and children. I also enjoy reading and find reading to be a great way to wind down after a long day. Music is also a major way for me to relax. I play three instruments and am active in my parish’s music ministry. Finally, I love taking walks with my family and try to exercise regularly by running and weightlifting.