By Rita Piro
A month after the conclusion of Catholic Schools Week, dioceses across the country continue to announce the closure of local schools that will take effect this June.
According to the National Catholic Education Association (NCEA), Catholic school closures in the United States since 2008 are nearing 1,500.
Increasing enrollment while remaining on solid financial footing is the enigmatic challenge faced by Catholic school leaders across the nation. While many are resolved to the idea that Catholic schools can no longer survive, let alone thrive, the potential still exists to prove otherwise. What to do? Three initial steps would serve to jump start a renewal.
Rethink the Parish School
The parish school staffed by congregational sisters who reported to the pastor is but a memory, replaced with a network of individual schools each governed by a two-tiered board comprised of a Board of Directors (the bishop, local pastors and a school superintendent) and a Board of Members (lay people who provide expertise in various areas such as finance, operations, marketing, etc.)
Catholic schools work best when supported financially and spiritually by a parish community invested in the success of the school. Under the present structure parents can choose to enroll their child in any school in any diocese they would like. Families are free to shop around for the Catholic school of their liking, be it near or far from their own actual home address, parish church and neighborhood community.
In this manner three things occur. First, Catholic schools cease to be colleagues and become competitors, fighting for prospective students from an ever-shrinking pool. Money that should go towards students, teachers, the classroom, and activities is now eaten up by expensive marketing campaigns to attract enrollment from all parts of a diocese and its surrounding areas.
Second, many families share little but a school location as they shuttle back and forth between different sets of friends, activities and parish/neighborhood communities. Third, local parishioners lack any type of physical, social or spiritual ties to a particular school. The result of all three is that unity, solidarity and spirit become limited leading to the erosion of the Catholic parish and school as one sacred community.
While it may not be feasible for every parish to support its own school, boundaries and restrictions regarding registration within a designated area school or schools would provide a greater sense of an active, collaborative, cross-generational faith community with increased equity among schools.
Change the Tuition Structure
Nothing has negatively impacted Catholic school enrollment as much as the cost of tuition. Contrary to what pundits and PR firms may tell us, parents do not need to be convinced of the benefits of sending their children to a Catholic school. Parents want to see their children in a Catholic school but for the vast majority of them, tuition remains a daunting obstacle.
Most United States dioceses provide one or more organized programs of financial aid to lower income students of any background, but with an average annual price tag of more than $3,700 per student and with most families paying more for multiple children, every family needs and deserves financial support.
Many supporters of Catholic schools point to the lack of government cooperation in school choice. Government subsidy of Catholic schools is no closer a reality today as when it was first bandied about among politicians nearly five decades ago. And that’s OK because Catholic schools don’t belong to any government agency or entity. They belong to Catholics who strive to continue the mission of Catholic education.
Similarly, families with children in the parish school should not expect their tuition bills to be subsidized by parishioners without being required to give something back. Parish-based service programs must be developed through which both parents and children work together to meet the needs of the parishioners who are helping to keep tuition at a reasonable rate.
This is not a new idea. The Cristo Rey network of Catholic high schools offers programs with local businesses, organizations and private donors who contribute to the cost of tuition in exchange for a student’s service per month. Families are responsible for a portion of the tuition bill. The Cristo Rey model has been hugely successful and its 35th high school since 1994 was opened in August 2018 in Houston, Texas.
Create a Front Line of Instruction
At the peak of Catholic school enrollment in 1965, more than 100,000 Religious sisters worked in congregational parish schools across the United States. Today that number is about 2,000 with most being senior sisters engaged in auxiliary staff roles. According to the latest NCEA figures, 97.4 percent of Catholic school teachers are lay women (74.8 percent) and men (22.6 percent) with just 2.6 percent religious and clergy.
The sisters have been out of the schools for nearly four decades now and a full-time Catholic school teacher has a salary on average 42 percent less than their public school counterparts in any part of the country. Catholic school teachers also perform numerous (unpaid) extra duties not even considered by their public school peers to be within their purview.
While the Church may not be able to provide pay and benefits equal to that of municipal and state supported public schools, it must design lay faculty compensation packages that attract and keep high quality instructors on all levels.
Increased compensation, however, requires increased commitment on the part of the teacher. Catholic schools must look to provide families with optional well-constructed year-round programs, including during the entire summer, that include academic and spiritual growth and enrichment as well as physical, social and creative activities.
Catholic school faculty must also maintain a high level of dedication to both their professional and their spiritual growth and formation. Catholic school teachers are co-ministers of Christ, the Master Teacher and as such they must be willing to make the mission of Catholic education an extension of their life. Just as they enter into post graduate studies to develop as an educator or administrator, Catholic school teachers must make use of opportunities such as retreats, liturgies, and workshops that allow them to grow in the Catholic faith. In this way, they are able to better provide their students with an active, loving, authentic witness to the mission of Jesus, which is at the core of being a Catholic school teacher.
As Catholics we seek to be women and men rooted in the Gospel. There will always be those who will deny the feasibility of any new ideas and attitudes, but unless we commit to a new perspective of thinking, no change will come to our schools, our youth will be denied the transformative power of a Catholic education and the Church as a whole will suffer greatly into the future.
Piro, a freelance writer for Catholic publications, is a native of the Diocese of Brooklyn.