N.Y. Plan Closes Weakest Schools

A strategic plan for the elementary schools of the Archdiocese of New York will close underperforming schools to reduce growing deficits, channel funds from the sale or rental of shuttered properties to a general education fund and replace the traditional parish governance model with a regional structure. The three-year plan, named Pathways to Excellence, was released Oct. 5.

“We like the analogy of the biblical vine grower,” said Timothy J. McNiff, superintendent of schools for the archdiocese. “When you prune a tree, you’re prepared for growth.” McNiff said the short-term target is to reduce by half the subsidies the archdiocese gives to struggling schools. In 2009 the archdiocese spent $30 million to support struggling parishes and schools. More than 56,000 students are educated in 188 parish and archdiocesan elementary schools throughout 10 counties. Private Catholic schools enroll another 4,800 students.

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Implementation of the strategic plan has already begun. A “reconfiguration steering committee” of principals, pastors and lay representatives will make recommendations for school closings and mergers to the superintendent during the first week of November. The archdiocese will consider appeals and alternate financing arrangements before implementing changes at the end of the 2010-11 school year.

Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan of New York, who recently issued a call in America for a comprehensive response to the challenges facing Catholic education (“The Catholic Schools We Need,” 9/13), has repeatedly pledged that there would be a seat in a New York Catholic school for any child who wants it. He said Pathways to Excellence is “not the silver bullet,” but the beginning of a recovery of confidence in the school system. Under the strategic plan, monies realized from the sale or rental of closed schools will be used to establish an archdiocesan-wide education fund to “reinvest in our school system,” according to McNiff.

The strategic plan moves away from parish-based elementary schools and creates regional school boards to devise “viable governance models” that may vary from one geographic region to another. “The strategy,” McNiff said, “is to break the system into smaller pieces through regionalization and ask the laity to take greater ownership of the schools, always in collaboration with the pastor.”

Archbishop Dolan said, “This is not the end of parochial schools. Where one parish with one school is strong and vibrant, it will stay,” but in suburban and rural areas, where two or three parishes are having trouble maintaining individual schools, the regional model will allow a single strong school to thrive. Pathways to Excellence anticipates that each parish will support a Catholic school, even if it is not located on the parish campus. And while the archdiocese will continue to support schools in areas of critical need, there will be a significant reduction in the total amount of financial subsidies from both parishes and the archdiocese.

The Pathways to Excellence program acknowledges that the archdiocese can no longer rely on good will and word of mouth to fill its classrooms. The plan recommends an aggressive marketing and recruiting campaign, including an interactive Web site that has already been launched to attract prospective families, www.buildboldfutures.org. The archdiocese also has joined with the University of Notre Dame in a program to increase the number of Latino children in Catholic schools.

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