SAN BERNARDINO—With Catholic schools in the United States seemingly at a crossroads, Sam Torres isn’t afraid to say that it’s time to break the traditional mold in order to revitalize and grow the system in the Diocese of San Bernardino.
He’ll get that chance as he has been named Superintendent of Catholic Schools for the Diocese, succeeding Patricia Vesely who retires in June.
“It’s very exhilarating and exciting,” Torres says of being named to the position. “I see this as an opportunity to be creative and yet stay on the path of success.”
Torres has served as the Principal of Pomona Catholic High School, an all-girls campus, and Pomona Catholic Middle School, a co-ed school, since 2009. Prior to that, he served for 12 years in Catholic education in the Archdiocese of Baltimore, Maryland, the last six as principal of Bishop Walsh School there.
When he arrived at Pomona Catholic eight years ago, enrollment was in decline and morale was low. Torres sought to reverse this trend by engaging more with the wider community to communicate the value of Catholic education to all families, and hiring staff that was passionate about the Catholic identity of the school. Within a few years, enrollment was on the rise and Pomona Catholic was a destination school on the east end of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.
One key to Torres’ success has been his ability to reach out to Hispanic families who may have initially thought Catholic education was not an option for their children. He is a fluent Spanish speaker and says he thinks it is important for Catholic schools to visually reflect touchstones of Hispanic Catholic culture like Our Lady of Guadalupe and the Dia de los Muertos in a sustained manner.
“Are we proud to say, this is who we are?” Torres says. “Traditions are extremely important and we have to celebrate them with intention.”
There are approximately 7,500 students enrolled in the 26 Catholic schools of the Diocese, yet the Diocese ranks sixth nationally with 1.7 million people here identifying as Catholic. Over the past decade enrollment in the Catholic elementary schools of the Diocese has declined slightly while increasing slightly in the high schools.
Torres looks at those numbers and sees room for growth. He sees himself as being an “animator” of increased dialogue between schools and the communities they serve to foster a greater sense of collaboration and reconciliation, which happen to be two of the four core values of the Diocese.
He said he plans to spend his initial months on the job doing a lot of listening to school principals, teachers, students and parents to better understand the picture of Catholic schools in the Diocese. He believes each school has it’s unique culture yet, at their best, Catholic schools are all driven by the mission driven spirit of the administrators, teachers and staff, he says.
“We have a duty to keep schools open to build faith-filled students,” Torres says. “What will our leaders look like if they’re not morally based? That’s what our schools do.”