Learning Curve: How one archdiocese adapted its Catholic schools for the 21st century
Like almost every other diocese in the United States, the Archdiocese of New York is undergoing a serious and daring refashioning of our beloved Catholic elementary schools. Since 1727, when the Ursuline Sisters of New Orleans opened the first Catholic grade school in what would become the United States of America, our schools have never had an easy time. Even during the 1950s, an era now considered their heyday, only 50 percent of our Catholic children were enrolled in our schools, and the cost, energy and sacrifice demanded to keep them going has always been staggering.
The past 45 years have presented particularly pointed challenges, as the numbers of religious women and men who formerly taught and administered in our schools have drastically diminished, costs of education have skyrocketed, competition has become more vigorous, the support for our schools among the wider culture has been severely diluted, and our own passion for supporting them has sometimes flagged.
We as a church are charged with keeping our schools excellent in education, effective in evangelization and catechesis, and affordable to all. Five years ago, the Archdiocese of New York embarked upon a fresh plan to meet these goals. The initiative is called Pathways to Excellence and, although still in development, it is already giving hope and confidence to our parents, educators, clergy, students and the wider community. The strategy is based on three non-negotiable principles, each giving rise to practical implementation.
Catholic schools are, indeed, “a pearl of great price.” This belief is bolstered by sound data and held firm by our parents, alumni and students. Our schools are singularly effective in educating our children and passing on our cherished values, and are worth all the trouble, sacrifice and energy they require. The question raised in the late 1960s—Why Catholic schools?—which, sadly, was taken up by some circles of prominence in the church, has been decisively answered: because they work! Our alumni and supporters know this in their gut, and the scholarly data backs them up.
It often seems as if people outside the Catholic community recognize the priceless value of our schools more than we do, as journals, pundits, scholars and newspapers rarely known for their sympathy to Catholic causes trumpet the indisputable effectiveness of our schools and beg us not to give up. Just ask the hundreds of parents of our inner-city children eagerly awaiting a scholarship from the renowned Inner City Scholarship Fund so championed by my predecessor, Cardinal Edward Egan, if Catholic schools work! As a prominent Jewish benefactor of our schools often chides me, “Nobody does it better than your schools! For God’s sake, quit closing them!”
Yet realism demands that we admit that our schools cause headaches, heartburn and sweat and absorb every dollar we can scrape up. Honesty also insists that we quit foolishly asking if they are worth it and confidently thunder: You bet they are!
We cannot do business as usual. In the Archdiocese of New York, we had to admit that we had too many schools—all of them very good, mind you, but just too many. The archdiocese was spending a bundle of money to keep open half-filled schools in buildings costly to maintain, thus consuming resources better used to strengthen other schools and offer more scholarships. Rather than have two struggling schools blocks apart, the reasoning went, we could have one solid, full, stable school.
As our superintendent of schools, Dr. Timothy McNiff, observed, “If we don’t close some, we’ll end up eventually closing all of them.” Besides, he reasoned, we can make the tough decisions on which ones should close—trusting in a great deal of study and consultation—and get it over with, so we could assure our parents that, at least for the foreseeable future, there would be no more closings.
Sure, it was painful, as, over two years, 60 of our schools closed. Our main consideration was that all of our children would have a nearby school ready to welcome them. Our school office offered energetic assistance so that nearly two-thirds of the students in the closed schools were able to attend another one nearby.
The result? We now have fewer schools—still a good number at 170—but they are in better facilities with larger enrollments and the choicest principals and teachers. And we do not anticipate a need for any large-scale closings in the near future.
In addition, parishes that used to have their own parochial school on their property but that were closed in the recent process, now find themselves with fresh revenue, especially if they can rent, lease or sell the former school building. In justice, our plan concludes, a part of that new revenue—we settled on half—must be given to the archdiocese to help our ever-necessary investment in and subsidy of our schools. All then share in the bonus.
Our schools now belong to everybody. Not only are our schools Catholic in values and atmosphere, but we made our schools catholic, with a small c. This meant a very dramatic decision: the days of one parish supporting its own parochial school were mostly over. Is it practical, our board of consultants asked, to expect that one pastor and parish could any longer support their own school all alone? I, for one, mourn this realistic admission, as the parochial school model was an example of subsidiarity and grass-roots attitudes at their best. True, we still have about 40 classic parochial schools. But now, for the most part, our schools are regional, belonging to all the parishes in a given area, whether the school is on their property or not. As one of our savvy pastors remarked, “It’s as if we’re finally implementing the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore, which decreed in 1884 that every parish was to have a school.”
In the Archdiocese of New York, all parishes support Catholic education. Pastors and the lay faithful in a region comprise school governing boards. This governing model was first introduced by my predecessor, Cardinal Egan, for the effective management of our Catholic high schools. After the success we realized for our high schools, it also made sense to move in this direction with our elementary schools. These boards oversee shared resources among the schools of the region in maintenance, facilities, budgets, payroll and, very importantly, enhanced fundraising, recruitment and marketing. The priests and principals report a welcome freedom in no longer having to mess with the boilers and snow removal. This leaves more time for priests to focus on pastoral duties, with their presence in the schools now concentrating on the sacraments and catechesis, and gives principals more time to focus on instructional leadership.
I do not want to give the impression that it all is rosy now here in New York. We still have challenges and snarls to work out. But as we enter our second year of this fresh strategy, enrollment is up, religion scores are up and test scores are on the rise. Last June, for the first time in memory, not a single grade school closed in the archdiocese. The pastors and their parishioners are cooperating and paying their freight, with parishioners proud that their parish now has a school to claim as its own. The pastors and their people have dug deep to pay their share of “their” school, even if it is not on their parish grounds. And, they reason, if the parish is helping support a nearby regional school they should encourage parents to send their children there.
Best of all, there is a renewed sense of confidence. As one parent commented, “It used to seem we were in a ‘hospice mode’ regarding our schools, thinking that they’re dying, and our job was to postpone their passing as long as we could and make their death as painless as possible.” No more: We trumpet that our schools are well worth fighting for, but admit that we can no longer do business as usual and that it is time to make them catholic, not only in character but in ownership by every parish.