Director transformed way schools worked


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SAN DIEGO — John Galvan is a firm believer in listening to “that quiet whisper of the Spirit.”

Eight years ago, it was that whisper that convinced him to leave the Academy of Our Lady of Peace, where he had been a teacher and administrator for about 20 years, to serve as director of the diocesan Office for Schools.

More recently, that same whisper has intimated that it’s time to move on.

When the current school year concludes, Galvan will begin a new job with the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA), where he will serve as director of catechetical assessments. In that role, he will oversee two assessment tools, Information for Growth and Assessment of Child Religious Education, that assist in evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of religious education programs nationwide.

“Much like the way I came into the Office for Schools, I’m going into NCEA with a renewed purpose, with fresh energy, and really believing that it’s work that matters,” said Galvan, who will continue to reside in San Diego.

A search committee headed by Auxiliary Bishop John Dolan has been interviewing prospective candidates for the new diocesan superintendent of schools position. It is expected that Galvan’s successor will be named by late April or early May.

During his tenure in the Schools Office, Galvan distinguished himself as a bridge-builder.

Looking back, he takes pride in the “culture of collaboration” that he helped to foster among the diocese’s 42 Catholic elementary schools. He noted the tendency of individual schools to work in silos and view neighboring schools as competitors. He added that he and his staff strived to overcome that mentality – and he believes they succeeded.

Dr. Julie Cantillon, associate director of the Schools Office, described Galvan as “the straw that stirs the drink.”

“He gets people talking, gets people working together, breaks down those barriers,” she said, adding that he does so with humility and humor.

Cantillon said the office now has groups of educators who come together regularly for leadership development, as well as networks of schools working together on projects.

Matt Cordes, also an associate director of the Schools Office, said Galvan succeeded in “getting everyone to buy into this idea that there was something special about Catholic education in San Diego, that it was something that wasn’t happening on an individual site but was happening across two counties and one amazingly large diocese.”

“He got everyone to buy into that system … and has fundamentally changed the way that we work together in San Diego,” he said.

Pointing to increased student enrollment diocese-wide and many schools with waiting lists, Cordes said we are witnessing “the resurgence of Catholic education in San Diego.” He credits this to Galvan’s leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic, when local Catholic schools re-opened and resumed in-person instruction much earlier than their public-school counterparts.

This academic year, enrollment increased by 14.8 percent at local Catholic elementary schools and by 4.2 percent at Catholic high schools. The total Catholic school student population is currently about 14,385 – an increase of 1,475 from the previous year.

Under Galvan’s leadership, the Schools Office also saw increased collaboration with other diocesan offices, as well as an ever-deepening partnership with the University of San Diego.

Cordes noted that the Schools Office not only interacts with administrative diocesan offices like Human Resources and Finance, which might be expected, but also works closely with pastoral offices, like the Office for Evangelization and Catechetical Ministry and the Office for Family Life and Spirituality, in recognition of a common mission.

As part of the Schools Office’s collaboration with USD, the Torero Promise represents “a big win” for the diocese, said Galvan. The program provides a pathway for students from the five local Catholic high schools to continue their Catholic education at USD and even to receive a level of financial assistance.

Another significant collaboration between the diocese and USD has been the Academy for Catholic Teaching, a master’s and credential cohort program, that prepares highly qualified, credentialed educators to teach in San Diego’s Catholic elementary and middle schools.

And new collaborations with USD continue to emerge. For example, a proposal was recently drafted for a program that would enlist USD interns to provide counseling at parochial schools.

Shortly before Galvan assumed leadership of the Schools Office, USD released a comprehensive report on the state of the local Catholic school system. It made a series of recommendations, including that the value of teachers, administrators, pastors and volunteers be recognized publicly and that the diocese form strong partnerships with USD and Escondido-based John Paul the Great Catholic University.

“I’m very pleased to say, within a few years, we made traction on every single one of those recommendations,” Galvan said.

But the past eight years haven’t been free from challenges and disappointments, including the closing of five schools.

Old Mission Montessori School in Oceanside, Holy Family School in Linda Vista and St. Michael Academy in Paradise Hills closed their doors in 2016, 2018 and 2021, respectively. In 2018, Our Lady of the Sacred Heart and Blessed Sacrament parochial schools also closed; however, they merged to form a new diocesan school called St. Katharine Drexel Academy, which is located at the site of the former Blessed Sacrament school.

The Schools Office pledged financial assistance through eighth grade to any students from these schools who wished to enroll in another local Catholic school.

Galvan acknowledged that there are times when closing a school is “the prudent thing” to do, though it is always difficult because of the history of those schools and the strong attachment that families have to them.

Dr. Kevin Calkins, president of Cathedral Catholic High School, is among many in the local Catholic educational community who are sorry to see Galvan go.

“At first, I was sad (to hear that he was stepping down) because John is such a gift to the diocese,” said Calkins. However, he added that Galvan’s new position with the NCEA means that more people and schools “will benefit from his gifts.”

“John is a quintessential professional,” he said. “He helped make the Schools Office a valuable resource to school principals and a welcoming and collaborative space for all Catholic schools.”

“While I am so excited for John to take this next step in his professional career, I will miss working alongside him,” said Kelly Bonde, principal of St. Katharine Drexel Academy. “His work for our diocese has propelled Catholic education in San Diego towards a higher level of excellence, and he has created a collegial, encouraging and supportive atmosphere among Catholic school leaders.”

On a personal level, Bonde said, “I am a better leader because of his mentorship in the formative years of my career.”

Galvan also has been a committed partner to pastors like Father Devdas Masillamony of Santa Sophia Parish in Spring Valley. When he first met Galvan in 2015, Father Masillamony was newly assigned to the parish; it was his first time pastoring a parish with a school.

“Whenever there were challenging times with regard to (Santa Sophia Academy), John guided and encouraged me along the way,” the priest recalled.

He particularly praised Galvan for his leadership during the COVID pandemic, during which he “remained a beacon of hope, support and strength.”

Describing Galvan as “a true servant-leader,” Father Masillamony said, “I and the Catholic schools will truly miss working with this gentleman, John. I know and strongly believe that he will continue to spread the message of love and optimism wherever he goes.”

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