Room at the Table: Hearing all sides on the future of Catholic education

Round tables have advantages. A round table has no head and confers a respectfully equal status on those who sit around it. The presence of a round table at the Paris Peace Talks helped end the Vietnam War in 1973. The legendary round table of King Arthur helped bring peace. And since it was easy to pull up an additional chair, Arthur reportedly invited those from distant kingdoms to join him at it.

Catholic education today does not face Arthur’s problem of feuding nobles, but gathering Catholic educators and those who care about Catholic education into respectful and inclusive dialogue is an important step toward the bright and creative future that all desire.


While researching Catholic education in Philadelphia since the Second Vatican Council for a chapter in a forthcoming book on urban Catholic education, I was granted observer status at an admirable series of roundtable discussions convened by the Center for Catholic Urban Education at Saint Joseph’s University. These meetings have brought together some 50 or more interested parties, including leaders of the office of Catholic education in the dioceses of Philadelphia and Camden; leaders of other Catholic school models, including the Gesu School, LaSalle Academy, Cristo Rey and others; Business Leaders Organized for Catholic Schools; the Connelly Foundation; the Maguire Foundation; leaders of the Philadelphia School Partnership; the Catholic School Development Program; several other Philadelphia foundations; and administrators from 11 area Catholic colleges and universities.

What Does a Roundtable Do?

One of the roundtable’s first actions was to welcome the National Standards and Benchmarks for Effective Catholic Elementary and Secondary Schools. Another session dealt with issues of sustainability and competitiveness following the release of the Blue Ribbon Commission Report “Faith in the Future: Sustainable Catholic Education for All Who Desire It,” which proposed the closure of 48 schools in the Ardhdiocese of Philadelphia. Another meeting featured working groups on the future of teaching in Catholic schools and on early childhood education.

The concrete achievements of the roundtable thus far are modest, but the spirit of dialogue, trust, openness and creativity I experienced make this model, advanced by Daniel Joyce, S.J., and his colleagues at Saint Joseph’s, worthy of imitation elsewhere. Its genius lies in its inclusiveness and mutual respect.

As this promising initiative goes forward, I recommend even broader inclusiveness. The gatherings of what are called “stakeholders” at Saint Joseph’s do not include an important community that cares about the future of Catholic schools—namely, the Association of Catholic Teachers. This is a curious omission. Why is it, I wonder, that young, post-collegiate volunteers from the Alliance for Catholic Education are appropriately celebrated, but the community of similarly inspired teachers who are investing their whole careers do not have a chair at the table? The most significant business reform of Catholic education in Philadelphia resulted from an extensive study by Coopers & Lybrand in 1991, which included a recommendation for a closer working relationship between the diocese and the Association of Catholic Teachers. This organization includes teachers whose union disaffiliated with the American Federation of Teachers in 1978 because of the A.F.T.’s all-out campaign against tuition tax credits. Members of the association are allies, who have aired their own advertisements championing Catholic schools.

A further suggestion is that such roundtables should concern Catholic education and not just Catholic schools. Catholic religious education programs need representation, too. In Philadelphia fewer than one-third of primary-school-age Catholics are in Catholic schools; 36 percent are in religious education programs; and the rest are in neither. Quality religious education programs are needed for those who are enrolled and for those who could be.

As a college teacher of theology, I frequently encounter students who are aware of their own religious illiteracy and now, as young adult collegians, regret this. They wish they had experienced top quality religious education. On the other hand, Catholic universities are producing professional religious educators with graduate degrees who cannot find decent employment. To its credit, the Philadelphia 2012 Blue Ribbon Commission Report has made a good first step by specifying that “all parishes should assume the responsibility for hiring a director of religious education who is a qualified and salaried professional along with staff support as deemed necessary to administer a successful and effective religious education program.”

Finally, I would include the experience of Catholic schools that have become charter schools. In the view of some, they have forfeited their right to a place at the table of Catholic education. My research has led me to believe that the matter is more complicated than may initially appear. I am impressed by what the Christian Brothers have done in Chicago with this transition and with the experience of the Archdiocese of Washington and their schools that have made that transition. A key element in success seems to be timing the transition correctly, closing the Catholic school in June and reopening in September as a charter school.

Signs of Creativity

The Catholic school news in Philadelphia is not so dire as some might believe. A review process following the Blue Ribbon Commisssion Report resulted in the closure of far fewer than the 48 schools that were recommended. All four Catholic high schools slated for closure have continued, and the management of Catholic secondary schools has been capably assumed by the Faith in the Future Foundation, under the leadership of Edward Hanway, the former chief executive officer of Cigna. He explained this development at the most recent roundtable meeting. Mr. Hanway also helped to save Drexel Neumann Academy when it was the lone surviving Catholic school in the low-income city of Chester and was threatened with closure.

Furthermore, Independence Mission Schools, a non-profit, was formed in 2012 to support 16 Catholic mission elementary schools in low income communities in Philadelphia. These schools feature independent governance, transparent operations and have the advantages that come from being part of a network. The pioneering urban Catholic ministry work of priests like the Rev. John McNamee and Msgr. Wilfred Pashley is implicitly recognized in this mission school initiative. I.M.S. was formed by John F. Donnelly, chief executive officer of L. P. Driscoll Co., a construction-management firm, and other business leaders who initially worked together as founding board members of St. Martin de Porres School in north Philadelphia.

In addition, Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M.Cap., signed a Great Schools Compact in April 2012 that commits Catholic, public and charter schools to providing high-quality education to all children in Philadelphia. An immediate goal of the compact is to identify higher performing schools, whether they are public, charter, parochial or private and to make that information available to parents so they can choose what is best for their families.

The Saint Joseph’s University roundtables are a special story in a time of challenge and creativity for Catholicism in Philadelphia and elsewhere. I laud the initiative and recommend it to others and am grateful for it, even while I encourage the group to make space for a few more chairs around the table. To parish churches I recommend what I experienced in my own Augustinian parish of Saint Thomas of Villanova, where the tradition of Catholic Schools Week was celebrated as Catholic Education Week. A special liturgy was held, and children came forward for a communal blessing. This group included children from Catholic schools, religious education programs and home-schooled religion programs—a local roundtable of sorts. The church was filled and the crowd was happy.

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Robert Aucoin
4 years 10 months ago
This line annoyed me: A further suggestion is that such roundtables should concern Catholic education and not just Catholic schools. Catholic religious education programs need representation, too.....Catholic schools and religious education programs cannot be compared. The Catholic school philosophy is clearly to education the whole person and to infuse otherwise secular subjects with a Christian perspective and world view. Certainly religious education programs need representation, but this "roundtable" has a particular purpose, the Catholic school. The author speaks about his "research" concerning charter schools. No amount of research can change the fact that charter schools are public schools. They may have differing philosophies than regular public schools, but they are still government sponsored schools subject to the whims of government. If charter schools run on the shirt tails of the Catholic schools whose buildings they have purchased, then that will fade over time.


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