An Interview with Dr. James Rigg

by Eileen Quinn Knight, PhD

Dr. Knight: It is a pleasure to interview today and get to know your involvement in Catholic Schools .We would like to know your background in Catholic education and what that involvement meant to you.


Dr. Rigg: I consider Catholic education to be my vocation. From a young age, I felt the calling to be a teacher. Immediately after graduating from college, I entered the Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE) program through the University of Notre Dame. This program places college graduates as teachers in schools that serve under-privileged populations. ACE teachers serve their schools for two years while earning a Master’s in Education. I happened to be placed in Memphis, Tennessee, where I worked at an inner-city Junior/Senior High School. I later became an Assistant Principal of the school, and went on to re-open a nearby Catholic elementary school. After a few years, I returned to my native state of Colorado, where I served as a principal and Diocesan Curriculum Director in the Diocese of Colorado Springs. In 2010, I accepted the position of Superintendent for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. Cincinnati supports a large school system consisting of 113 Catholic schools. I happily served in Cincinnati until 2015 when I moved with my family to Chicago to become Superintendent here.


I believe wholeheartedly in the transformational value of a Catholic education. Not only do we prepare our students with the academic subjects they need to be successful, but we nurture the growth of their faith. We therefore embrace and educate the whole child, motivating them with a sincere desire to serve others and make the world a better place. At each stage of my career, I have deepened by love for Catholic education, and my respect for how Catholic education changes lives. In recent years, this respect has become even more profound as I have enrolled my own four children in Catholic schools and seen how they have grown in their knowledge and faith.


Dr. Knight: We are a large Catholic archdiocese growing in diversity. Explain how you would reach out to people from various demographics to ensure all community members are included in learning


Dr. Rigg: Our calling in Catholic education is to serve all who wish to come to us, regardless of their racial, economic, or geographic background. All of our children need and deserve the very best education. We work hard to ensure that all Catholic schools are welcoming, and are equipped to serve the families around them. Our commitment to serve different types of families is particularly important in our outreach to the poor. Catholic schools have always had a remarkable record at helping immigrant and underprivileged students get into to college and achieve long-term success. Our high school graduation rate is over 99% and over 96% of our students attend college.


Dr. Knight: What is your philosophy of leadership? How would you lead an archdiocesan wide initiative expected for the entire archdiocese such as the RMC.


Dr. Rigg: I see my role as representing the interests of over 75,000 students in Catholic schools across the Archdiocese. As a leader, I must be relentless in assuring that our students receive the very best religious and academic education. I see myself as a servant leader, providing vision, service, and support to students, families, and educators in our schools. My leadership is not in a vacuum; I am fortunate to benefit from an outstanding staff in the Office of Catholic Schools, as well as pastors and principals who courageously support the families in their care.


In my first year as Superintendent, I was charged with establishing the next strategic plan for Catholic School education. The plan, entitled “Renewal and Hope”, was unveiled in the fall of 2017. It contains numerous initiatives to ensure that we continue to deliver on our commitment to provide the best education possible. The plan has focused our work, provided clarity to our stakeholders, and given us a rallying cry for a positive future. The plan also dovetails with the wider Renew My Church initiative, our effort to ensure long-term renewal and vitality and our local Church.


Dr. Knight: What are some ways you have dealt with challenges and how did you find solutions?


Dr. Rigg: As a leader, I always feel it is my obligation to clearly understand the needs and perspectives of those that I serve. When faced with conflict, I seek first to listen and objectively understand the perspective of the other person. My experience is that most people act out of what they see as good intentions. For example, in working with parents, I remind myself that they love their children and are advocating for what they think is best for them. After listening, I strive to logically state my own perspective and attempt to work towards a solution. Ultimately, my obligation is to support the wider mission of our Catholic schools. If my decisions, including my resolutions to conflict, are guided by this mission, I am convinced that we will arrive at the best outcome.


Dr. Knight: You have been to all the schools under your care. What advice would you give to a new teacher on his/her first year of teaching? How about a veteran teacher in need of improvement?


Dr. Rigg: I am in sincere awe of the talents and commitments of our educators. They are truly outstanding men and women who have accepted the life-giving call to Catholic education. I am so grateful for their work!


In talking to new teachers, I always remind them that they were called by the Holy Spirit to serve at their particular school. They are empowered to positively change lives, working through their students to make the world a better place. I encourage them to constantly connect back to their vocational call. Teaching is an enormously challenging profession. The days are long, and students and parents can be emotionally taxing. At the same time, they must recognize the good they are achieving and the progress their children are making.


For new teachers, I also encourage them to maintain a good work-life balance. They should also seek to constantly grow in their profession, and listen to those who have served as teachers for longer.


My message to veteran teachers is much the same, as they have also accepted the vocational call to Catholic education. However, for experienced teachers, I encourage them to mentor those less experienced. Our teachers are enormously important, and it is vital that veteran teachers and principals provide support and guidance to those just entering the field.


Dr. Knight: What are some of the ways you interact with parents to support their work in raising their children?


Dr. Rigg: Having four children in the Catholic schools myself has given me a unique perspective of Catholic school parents. By enrolling their child in a Catholic school, parents are entrusting their school with their most treasured gift: their children. This trust cannot be taken for granted. Given the scope of my job, my own direct interaction with parents is relatively limited. Most often, I communicate to parents through our principals and teachers. However, I enjoy talking with parents during my school visits and when I attend school events, and strive to communicate regularly with them from the Office of Catholic Schools.


Dr. Knight: What would be your ideal school environment and how would you encourage that kind of culture?


Dr. Rigg: To me, and ideal school environment is one in which each student is welcomed, embraced, and served. Our Catholic mission compels us to serve all students, regardless of their background. I would want every student to know that they are loved and surrounded by caring adults. Likewise, my ideal school is a place of academic rigor, where students become well prepared for life. Finally, a Catholic school culture has Christ at its core; it is a place where Christ is always among us, working through us, even as we grow to better understand and serve him.


Dr. Knight: As a statistician, I realize data is a large part of determining the success of schools. Explain your involvement in professional learning communities and how you have used data effectively.


Dr. Rigg: I believe that educators are life-long learners, and work best as a community. As such, I have sought to foster the practice of forming Professional Learning Communities. Not only do PLC’s enable teachers to learn from one another, but they grow together as a necessary social and emotional support system.

Understanding student achievement and growth through data is essential in fostering rigorous instruction. As we seek to deliver on our promise of a strong education, it is essential that we understand how our students are learning. Thus, I work to ensure that my decisions and actions are grounded in data, and that this data is used to formulate relevant long-term goals.


Dr. Knight: The principal and the team are important administrators of the school. How do you support their work and what qualities do you look for inn hiring a new principal?


Dr. Rigg: Numerous studies have shown that principals have the greatest impact on the quality and efficacy of a Catholic school. We spend much of our energy in the Office of Catholic Schools ensuring that we have be very best school leaders working with our families. I have been deeply impressed by our principals; not only are they outstanding leaders, but they are deeply committed to our Catholic educational mission.


In recruiting principals, I seek individuals who have a service mindset, a commitment to work hard, a passion for instructional excellence, and a genuine love of children. Principals must be team-builders; they must be the chief cheerleaders of a positive and comprehensive vision for their school. I strive to find master communicators, who are capable of inspiring stakeholders to support the school. Most important, I want men and women who recognize and have accepted the God-given call to leadership in the Church. They are the hands and feet of Christ to the people they serve!


Dr. Knight: Safety is such an important part of our everyday understanding of life. What aspects are the most important variables to you?


Dr. Rigg: Children cannot learn if they do not feel safe. We have worked with all of our schools to ensure that they foster and maintain a safe environment on behalf of the children they serve. We work with local police departments to develop specific strategies for each school. While each school’s safety plan varies depending upon the school layout, neighborhood, etc., there are certain approaches that are always present in our schools. These include such things as locked doors, visitor protocols, emergency procedures, and so on. Most powerfully, we teach our students and employees to be vigilant and to report any potential problems immediately.


Dr. Knight: Technology is such an integral and important part of our lives. What has been effective for your schools?


Dr. Rigg: Technology is an important and extremely useful learning tool in our Catholic schools. While no device can replace a good teacher, technology can enhance learning in ways unimaginable only a few years ago. We actively encourage all Catholic schools to leverage technology to benefit their students. While each school is at liberty to design their own approach, we do work with each school to ensure that technology is being used and is benefitting our students.


Dr. Knight: Last weekend you were at Holy Fire for junior high students. 4100 attended with 5000 the second day. Why are these programs so important?


Dr. Rigg: I sincerely enjoyed attending Holy Fire. It was impossible not to be inspired by the energy and joy of several thousand young people united in prayer. To me, events like Holy Fire are important because they connect young people to a wider community. They realize that young people just like them are coming together in praise and worship. Moreover, the celebrants, musicians, and prayer leaders were outstanding, so it was my hope that the students would leave renewed an energized about growing in their faith.


Dr. Knight: Why are Catholic schools important for the success of the Church?


Dr. Rigg: Our children are the future of our Church, and the future of our world. As we seek to renew and grow our Church, I can’t help but think that Catholic schools are a major opportunity. No other ministry gathers so many young people for so long a time period each year. If we are doing our job, we will graduate disciples and reach to achieve positive change in world that desperately needs them.


Dr. Knight: Thank you for providing us with this interview as many will learn from your answers.

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