By Catherine Hickey
I am writing in response to “Class Dismissed: Rethinking the Catholic School Model” which appeared as an Up Front and Personal column in the March 23, 2019 issue of the Tablet. I want to clarify some of the misleading points made in the column on Catholic elementary school education in the 21st century, and how it exists in the Diocese of Brooklyn.
Since Ms. Piro is a native of the Diocese of Brooklyn, I trust she is aware of the dramatic and courageous initiatives taken by those responsible for Catholic elementary schools within the Diocese. Under the guidance of Bishop DiMarzio, a comprehensive strategic plan, Preserving the Vision, has been in place and implemented since 2008. Dr. Thomas Chadzutko, Superintendent of Schools, has taken the leadership role since then in following the mandates of Preserving the Vision to insure the future of Catholic elementary school education. In recent years, Bishop James Massa, Vicar for Education, has joined Dr. Chadzutko in this extremely important apostolic work of the Church.
I would like to share my analysis of Ms. Piro’s suggestions to “jump start a renewal.”
Rethink the Parish School
Yes, the parish school of old, administered by dedicated religious sisters and brothers, is a fond memory. Following the mandates of Vatican II to increase the role of the laity in the ministries of the Church, Preserving the Vision has formed academies with a two-tiered governance structure. The Board of Members is comprised of the pastors of those parishes aligned to the academy, thus ensuring that all parishes would be responsible for an elementary school – not just those which happen to have the building on site. Ex-officio members of the Board of Members include the Vicar for Education, the Superintendent of Schools and the Deputy Superintendent of Schools. The Board of Directors is comprised of interested and dedicated lay people who bring their skills and talents to their academy.
Ms. Piro’s statement that “Catholic schools work best when supported financially and spiritually by a parish community invested in the success of the school” is partially correct. Most academies within the Diocese of Brooklyn have two or more parishes supporting their efforts. Through the Pastoral Assistance Plan, all of the pastors of the aligned parishes participate in the spiritual life of the academy. Of course, parents can choose to send their children to any Catholic school they prefer. As the Admissions Director of a Catholic high school within the Diocese, Ms. Piro can relate to that practice. That policy of choice allows parents to select a school that best fits their child’s and the family’s needs; for example: choosing a school close to work.
Ms. Piro suggests geographical boundaries to restrict choice for parents. The Code of Canon Law, promulgated by Pope St. John Paul II in 1983 removed the restrictions of geographical boundaries for parishes so that Catholics could worship at the parish of their choice. And so, it is for Catholic schools as well. The competition faced by the Catholic academies is not primarily with other Catholic schools – it’s with charter and public schools.
All academies and parish schools receive financial support through the Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton Trust. The funds from the Trust come from the parishes and, through this funding, the Office of the Superintendent-Catholic School Support Services is able to provide programs and initiatives to the academies and parish schools.
Change the Tuition Structure
Catholic elementary schools have been tuition-driven for almost 50 years. Realizing the financial pressure which parents face, the Diocese of Brooklyn has one of the most comprehensive tuition assistance programs among dioceses in the United States. During the 2017-2018 school year, Futures in Education distributed $7.1 million to 4,401 students within the Diocese, a level that has been sustained for many years, including this current school year.
For the past three years, Futures also has partnered with parishes to award “Evangelization Scholarships” to children who attend parish Religious Education programs and who wish to attend an academy or parish school.
Ms. Piro contends that it’s “okay” that the possibility of religious schools being included in government-funded school choice programs is remote. Is it then “okay” that our parents who are tax paying citizens get no benefit from public funding which goes to education? I don’t think it’s okay and I will continue to argue with state and federal politicians until our parents get equity with parents who send their children to public and charter schools.
For the record: the successful Cristo Rey model focuses on reaching out to various business communities to hire their students for part-time work. This approach is totally different from expecting parishioners to have their needs met by the parents and students in academies and parish schools. And, by the way, if any parishioners or local businesses would like to contribute to Futures in Education, please go to futuresineducation.org. You can sponsor a student by donating a portion of tuition through their inspiring Be an Angel to a Student program.
Create a Front Line of Instruction
Let’s consider how instruction is handled in Brooklyn, and in most dioceses. Yes, it’s true; teachers in Catholic schools earn a salary lower than their colleagues in public schools. That’s because Catholic schools do not have access to the tax levy money which is available to public school systems. I do question the “numerous (unpaid)” extra duties, referenced in the article, which are expected of Catholic school teachers. In my experience, there may be some after-school club activities which our teachers moderate; but, if a teacher is supervising a regularly scheduled after school program, he or she is compensated for that work.
I would like to take the opportunity, at this point, to express gratitude for the army of dedicated teachers who are in the academies, parish schools and high schools within the Diocese of Brooklyn. They realize that their work is key to the evangelizing mission of the Catholic Church. Ms. Piro is accurate in her analysis of the expectation that Catholic school teachers “must also maintain a high level of dedication to both their professional and spiritual growth and formation.” The Office of the Superintendent-Catholic School Support Services and the Diocesan Secretariat for Evangelization offer numerous opportunities for this professional growth. Partnerships have been formed with a number of colleges and universities to offer these opportunities as well.
The implementation of the Preserving the Vision Strategic Plan for Catholic Education within the Diocese of Brooklyn is now in its eleventh year and continues to be a living document. It is evaluated every year. The Plan has always been open to and has implemented “new ideas and attitudes” which will lead to strong schools that form students in the faith who are educated to be good and productive citizens of the world. Ms. Piro, thank you for being part of our evangelizing mission. I hope, in reading this response to your column, that you have gained new insight and are reassured of the commitment of the entire educational community within the Diocese of Brooklyn to the future of our academies, parish schools, and high schools.
Catherine Hickey, Ph.D. is the former Superintendent of Schools and Secretary for Education for the Archdiocese of New York and, since retirement, has served as a Consultant in the Diocesan Office of the Superintendent-Catholic School Support Services.